Friday, February 27, 2015

Watch This: Adaptation

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Adaptation (2002)
Written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman
Directed by Spike Jonze

Is there anyone responsible for bringing more dizzyingly original storytelling to the big screen over the past two decades than screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman?  He burst onto the scene in 1999 with the Spike Jonze-directed comedy Being John Malkovich, and followed it up with equally ambitious scripts for Human Nature (2001), Adaptation (2002), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney's underrated 2002 directorial debut), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and his own directorial debut, 2008's Synecdoche, New York.  Kaufman's oeuvre is a wholly original body of work, a group of films that are as dazzlingly inventive as they are insightful in their examination of themes like unhappiness, lovesickness, and artistic struggle.  While all of these films are absolutely worth checking out (and all are available in the Reeves Memorial Library collection), we've been highlighting Oscar winners this month, so this post will focus on Adaptation, which took home a gold statuette for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the work of cast member Chris Cooper.

Adaptation is a fascinating blend of truth and fiction, and it is not always clear which is which.  It is, in part, a film about its own creation.  In the film (and, we assume, in real life) Kaufman has been hired to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, which tells the story of eccentric, obsessive Florida orchid poacher John Laroche.  The book is full of beautiful prose and detailed descriptions of flowers, and although Laroche's story is compelling, Kaufman cannot find enough material for a feature-length film.  He is adamant that the film should avoid the usual Hollywood tropes, like "sex or guns or car chases ... or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end."  And so, eventually, he writes himself into the script, and the film Adaptation not only tells the more straightforward stories of Orlean and Laroche, it also follows Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) as he writes the film Adaptation, fails in his varied attempts at romance, and deals with his mooching identical twin brother, Donald (a fictional character, also played by Cage).  Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) is a sophisticated New Yorker, a member of the Big Apple's intellectual elite, but she is fascinated by the scruffy, down-to-earth Laroche (Chris Cooper), whose beguiling mix of intelligence, passion, and vanity stirs a strange attraction in Orlean, who realizes she herself has never really been passionate about anything in the way that Laroche is.

Charlie's running voice-over narration reveals a man crippled by agonizing insecurities about both his abilities as a writer and his own attractiveness ("I'm starting to sweat.  Stop sweating.  I've got to stop sweating.  Can she see it dripping down my forehead?  She looked at my hair line.  She thinks I'm bald").  His lack of confidence stands in marked contrast to his brother Donald, whose own carefree demeanor and improbably successful attempt at a screenwriting career only serve to heighten Charlie's frustrations.  Charlie even goes so far as to attend a seminar given by writing teacher Robert McKee (Brian Cox), whose teachings seemed to work so well for Donald.

I will refrain from revealing any further plot points, as one of the joys of watching Adaptation is to see the wholly unpredictable directions the story takes.  Suffice it to say that, despite Kaufman's early insistence that his adaptation will not contain any of the usual movie tropes, it deftly manages to include many of them in the most delightfully surprising ways.

Despite its skyscraper-high concept and extremely self-referential nature, the film is never confusing, nor does it ever feel simply like a gimmick.  Much of the credit for this can certainly go to director Spike Jonze, who has demonstrated an impressive ability for bringing such singular stories to the screen, but it really all comes down to Kaufman's script.  His writing is supremely clever and funny (Charlie's constant voice-over is at one point interrupted by McKee's stern warning to his seminar students, "God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends"), but also reveals a profound depth of insight and feeling in its look at obsession, beauty, self-discovery, and the creative process.  There is a wonderful scene between Laroche and Orlean in which he discusses the relationship between flowers and the insects that pollinate them, and his beautiful description not only reveals a romantic idealism and passion that attracts Orlean, but also provides one of the loveliest bits of dialogue in recent cinema:

"By simply doing what they're designed to do, something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live - how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way."

The cast of Adaptation is uniformly terrific.  Chris Cooper's Oscar-winning turn as John Laroche, missing front teeth and all, makes him instantly likable, despite his condescending behavior and off-putting vanity (he refers to himself as the smartest guy he knows).  Streep is a pleasure to watch in a role that lets her have far more fun than most of her films up to that time (more recent films like A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Mamma Mia! (2008), and It's Complicated (2009) have also allowed her to show off her lighter side).  The real treat, however, is watching Nicolas Cage in the dual roles of twin brothers Charlie and Donald (who, despite being entirely fictional, was credited as co-writer of the film's screenplay, and even nominated for an Oscar alongside the real-life Charlie).  Cage is an absolute revelation.  Despite the fact that there is no noticeable difference in hair or makeup between the two brothers, we can always tell them apart due to differences in Cage's body language, posture, and facial expressions.  Cage's career has become somewhat of a punchline in recent years, but Adaptation serves as a reminder of his incredible range and talent.

The film works on multiple levels, and even its title has a double meaning: it not only refers to the biological concept of adaptation, but also to the process of adapting Orlean's book that is the subject of the film.  Clearly Orlean's writing posed a great challenge as source material, but it is a testament to Kaufman's talent that a film about the near impossibility of adapting The Orchid Thief is in fact such a wildly brilliant and successful adaptation of The Orchid Thief.

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