“Adaptation” is a good movie. Spike Jonze, lauded director of the surreal, self-reflexive “Being John Malkovich,” has turned out another bizarre, ironic, and challenging film, with solid if not fantastic acting on the parts of Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper. The movie will make you think; it will make you cringe; it will make you laugh; and it will make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
But “Adaptation” is not a great movie. When screenwriter Charlie Kaufman makes a choice to write a screenplay about a character named Charlie Kaufman writing a screenplay about himself writingÊa screenplay, he delves deeply into the maze of the creative process. It raises the narrative stakes of the film and requires some sense of completion. Stories don’t need to have neat endings, but a work which claims to understand the machinations of the cinematic cycle must pay up in the end, must offer its eager, open viewers its own gospel. “Adaptation” rejects catharsis, epiphany, heroism, goodness, friendship — fine. But it leaves nothing in their place.
The movie is full of plot pitfalls and postmodern trickery on Kaufman’s part, and, to a degree, director Jonze. To call it an altogether original story would be forgetful of Fellini’s masterpiece of self-reflexive auteurism, “8 1Ú2.” Yet the tale Kaufman and Jonze weave is nevertheless unique and wonderfully fresh even in the growing cottage industry of the Hollywood-financed “art film.” We watch as the fictional Charlie Kaufman, played by Cage, struggles to start a script based on real-life writer Susan Orleans’ “The Orchid Thief.” As Charlie sweats over the plot and the various unattainable women in his life, we see flashes of the events that supposedly went into the writing of the book “The Orchid Thief.” Jonze lets us watch as, three years prior to the movie’s present, journalist Orleans (Meryl Streep) shares words, witty barbs, and life’s weighty frustrations with the bumpkin-styled John Laroche (Chris Cooper, minus a couple of front teeth),Êwho steals the endangered ghost orchid for profit from Florida national preserves.
As the story unfolds, Charlie decides that the best way to adapt “The Orchid Thief” is to tell the story of his trying to tell the story of “The Orchid Thief.” Yes, I said it.ÊAnd it does not get any simpler or saner from there. As Charlie runs around reciting descriptions and dialogue into a tape recorder of him reciting dialogue into a tape recorder, he seeks out the help of his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage). Although a seeming simpleton, Donald, inspired by Charlie’s passion, writes his own action script, and hits Hollywood paydirt. Meanwhile Charlie, the genius, suffers from writer’s block and blocked desire. At this point, the film raises the stakes too high, as the characters discuss what one shouldn’t do in a movie. Then “Adaptation” goes and breaks its heroes’ rules. Such playfulness is surely clever, but must be backed up by a convincing conclusion, by a pay-off which shows why the rules can or should be broken. Here, “Adaptation” fails.
The movie’s mind-bending meta-fictional playfulness quickly slides into the tropes of a semi-serious thrill-ride, as the fictional brothers Kaufman stalk Orleans from her Manhattan office to muggy Florida, where all sorts of badness abounds: a trip to a drug farm, a frenetic midnight chase through the bayou, an alligator attack, and one of the must stunningly realistic car crashes ever portrayed on film. As Director Jonze and real-life writer Kaufman play with these hyperbolic action sequences, both yearn to capture them convincingly and mock their grandiosity. The fictional Kaufman’s frequent lament of “Why can’t I just make a movie about flowers,” is ironically upended as his film is blown up by all the drama and “action” from which he wanted to free his script.
The unpeeling of the layers of artistic creation is fascinating. But in the end the violence to which “Adaptation” succumbs destroys its heart. In its first hour, the film succeeds reasonably in making us care for its human characters. But then, in its second hour, “Adaptation” deprives those characters of life, literally and figuratively. An argument can and will be made that this is the movie’s point, that artistic vision should not be corrupted, that cinema is plagued by rules and regulations and corporate interference which drown out the human story. But by treating human intellect, emotion, and even life, with such a light hand, “Adaptation” abandons the empathetic essence that is art. Although a good thought experiment, it betrays the viewer, and leads him so far into abstraction that the bond between watcher and actor becomes meaningless. We cannot ask a movie or any piece of art to offer us hope, but we can ask it to offer us humanity, and “Adaptation”‘s lust for cleverness devours its own delicate human origins.