LikeBeing John Malkovich, the first collaboration between director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, their new movie, Adaptation, is spellbindingly original. At a time when even the sharpest Hollywood talents tend to play it safe, this film is almost an affront. It’s as if the filmmakers were saying to us, “Movies don’t have to be bad just because Hollywood makes it so difficult to be good.” The movie business has never been more afraid of risk, and Adaptation is, among many other things, a comedy about that very problem. It’s about the despair of an artist trying to be passionate about what he does in a bottom-line era that’s anything but. Paradoxically, it’s also about the miseries of having creative freedom, when there is no one to blame but yourself for what you come up with.
Kaufman is not only the movie’s screenwriter but also its chief protagonist. The way this came about has become part of Adaptation’s wacky lore. Initially, Kaufman was hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, a marvelously meandering meditation on orchids and the mania for collecting them that focused on a south-Florida trickster named John Laroche. (Orlean is played by Meryl Streep, Laroche by Chris Cooper.) Kaufman couldn’t come up with a way to adapt the book as a conventional drama, so he ended up writing a movie about a screenwriter—“himself”—who can’t figure out a way to adapt The Orchid Thief and ends up inserting himself into his own script.
What’s more, Charlie has a twin brother named Donald. Both roles are played, in a real tour de force, by Nicolas Cage, in two of the slyest and most intuitive performances he’s given in years. Donald camps out in Charlie’s barely furnished Hollywood home and wants to be a screenwriter, too. (The screenplay for Adaptation is officially credited to the two brothers, for that hall-of-mirrors effect.) The brothers may look identical, but temperamentally they couldn’t be farther apart. Donald is a loutish swinger whose script is a crass piece of commercialism about a serial killer with multiple personalities. (Its title: The Three.) Sorry-faced Charlie runs himself down mercilessly and gets clammy around pretty women. He’s the opposite of a Hollywood slickster, but the success of Being John Malkovich—we are shown staged flashbacks of the making of that film, with many of its original cast and crew reassembled — has made him “hot.” Charlie’s agent (Ron Livingston), a foulmouthed shark, admiringly calls him "the king of crazy shit. ” The producer (Tilda Swinton) of the Orchid Thief project tells him over lunch that she’d love to have a portal into his brain (shades of Being John Malkovich). Charlie would like nothing more than a portal into anyone’s world but his own; he thinks his decision to place himself inside his own script is pathetic.
What makes the film so bizarrely touching is that Charlie is a soulful kvetch. Like everything else for him, screenwriting is intensely personal, and since his life maunders aimlessly, he can’t understand why his screenplays shouldn’t also; he doesn’t think he needs conflicts and character arcs and all the other necessities of the trade espoused by screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee, the real-life script-seminar potentate played here by a bellowing Brian Cox. Donald swears by McKee, but Charlie despises what he deems the unnaturalness of McKee’s commandments. And yet Charlie (not to mention the real-life Kaufman) is smart enough to admit that the McKees of the world have something to teach him: If you can figure out the logic of a story, maybe you can find the logic of your own life.
Adaptation zooms around in time, going as far back as the bubbling beginnings of the planet, with zippy little visual essays on Darwin and orchids. Susan Orlean, the Manhattan-based New Yorker writer, is also a protagonist, and her tagging-along with Laroche through the Everglades in search of rare orchids is her own swampy attempt at finding something to be passionate about. After a career of tightly controlled performances, Meryl Streep seems totally replenished in this film; maybe the heat and the languor got to her, but she’s never been more sensually open than she is here. She seems to be in a perpetual state of awed discombobulation. (She has a great moment when, stoned on some plant powder Laroche has sent her, she imitates a dial tone.) In a way, Susan is a soul mate for Charlie, who is mightily disconnected, too; and yet until the end he never gets up the gumption to meet her. The closest he comes is chickening out when he finds himself in an elevator with her. Donald eventually ends up posing as Charlie to interview her.
Charlie can’t help fantasizing about Susan, though. Adaptation gets at the way we build erotic scenarios around the authors we read and how we imagine their real lives to be. In The Orchid Thief, Susan the reporter and Laroche, her subject, are chaste acquaintances, but in Adaptation they become lovers. It makes sense, too. Laroche is skanky and missing his front teeth, but Chris Cooper gives him such a cunning vitality that you can see how he might crumble the defenses of someone like Susan, who, without being fully aware of it, is looking to be exalted by ardor. That’s what Charlie is looking for, too, and the fact that he is trying to find it in, of all places, the movie business is what gives the film its wraparound wit and also its heavy air of regret. Only the ending falters (it did in Being John Malkovich too). Jonze and Kaufman engineer the kind of shotgun melodramatics they otherwise deride, and even though this irony is probably intentional, emotionally it doesn’t work at all.
Still, few recent movies have conveyed so forcefully how people can feel shut out by their own lack of passion, how they yearn to end the emptiness. Adaptation is full of defeatism: Charlie the nut-brain artist flounders while his brother’s laughable high-concept script sells for a fortune. And yet the movie itself is proof that something new and triumphantly self-invented can still come out of the studios. Like the wild orchid, Adaptation is a marvel of adaptation, entwined with its hothouse environment and yet stunningly unique.