Thursday, March 06, 2003


Directed by Spike Jonze, ADAPTATION is the fascinating story of painfully insecure screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's agonizing struggle to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's nonfiction book, THE ORCHID THIEF into a screenplay as exotic and intriguing as any of the 30,000 varieties of orchids that exist (gee I hope that figure is correct - I think it is close but alas have no fact checker). It is a heady, sprawling chronicling of two stories (Kaufman's creative block and how he resolves it and the making of Orlean's book) that coalesce into a mind-blowing ending. Touching on writers block, sibling rivalry, obsession, passion (and lack thereof), as well as self-loathing, at its core ADAPTATION is a meditation about storytelling. Simultaneously funny and sad, the characters were on a rollercoaster ride at an anti-amusement park designed by Dario Argento where every twist and turn is bringing them closer and closer to an untimely and unavoidable end and they are powerless do anything to stop it. The film juxtaposes illusion and reality in such original ways that to attempt to describe it wouldn't do the film justice.
Basically the story starts with Kaufman, who wrote BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (played by a terrific Nicolas Cage - thank goodness he decided to take a break from action movies) and is intimidated and overwhelmed at the prospect of adapting Susan Orlean's book into a screenplay. Meryl Streep is fantastic as the elegant, urbane Manhattanite who psychologically unravels as she becomes involved first as a writer and eventually romantically, with the subject of her book: the mad orchid thief/con man John Laroche. Chris Cooper really nails the idiosyncratic Laroche and actually exceeds his superlative performance as Sheriff Sam Deeds in LONE STAR - which is pretty amazing. Cooper is fast becoming the new millennium character-actor equivalent of Warren Oates, and here his performance is riveting. The fact that he is missing front teeth adds a dangerous, feral quality to this man whose life has been about the pursuit of various passions: fish, orchids and as the film ends, porn. Added into this mix is Charlie's less talented twin brother Donald, also played by Cage of course, who takes a three-day film writing seminar and ends up selling his screenplay for millions. Actually there are many characters in this film - some fictional as well as real - such as John Cusak, Catherine Keener, John Malcovich who all play themselves. None of them are superfluous, fortunately they all combine to reinforce this twisting and turning narrative and keeps you leaning forward in your seat, thoroughly engaged.
Both Kaufman and Orlean are complex, bright, talented writers who also happen to be flawed in various ways. Orlean in particular is sad especially when she remarks that she desires to "want something as much as people want these plants." She essentially wants passion in her life. She finds it in Laroche and latches on to him vicariously experiencing his passion for orchids. The idea of a human going through life without an interest that captivates and drives them is tragic. This eventually sets up a whole series of events - the irony being that at the outset of the film Kaufman stated that when he adapted Orlean's book he would not make it "an orchid heist movie, or change the orchids into poppies and make it about drug running" - basically saying no to a Hollywood ending. Yet ADAPTATION the film, not Kaufman's screenplay, winds up with exactly that: guns, violence, swamps, chases... well I don't want to give it away. Hope that I haven't. It is breathtaking - kind of like an orchid.