Anyone who saw 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” knows that when screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze collaborate, the end product is both profound and strange. “Adaptation,” their second achievement together, is a little more of the former and less of the latter.
Where “Malkovich” was a surreal film, “Adaptation” is more grounded in reality with some moments of absurdity. Though “Malkovich” had some startling revelations for the alert viewer, “Adaptation” contains more and clearer truths for one to ponder long after the film ends.
“Adaptation” tells the story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (based on the actual screenwriter of the film). Charlie, played by Nicholas Cage, is hired to write a screen adaptation of a book, The Orchid Thief, about a man who loves, grows and sometimes even steals orchids.
Both the author of the book (played incredibly by the always wondrous Meryl Streep) and the thief (Chris Cooper in a performance that is finally getting him the attention he should have gotten for “Lone Star” and “American Beauty”) figure prominently in the film.
Charlie’s twin brother, Donald (Cage in a dual role here), is also an important character. Donald, too, is working on a screenplay which is too bizarre to describe. His character furnishes many of the funniest moments in this insanely hilarious film. In fact, the whole plot of “Adaptation” is too bizarre to describe. One needs to see this film not really knowing in advance what it is about, for one of the great joys of “Adaptation” is the discovery.
Another joy is watching these fine performances. Three almost certain Oscar nominations are here: Streep, Cooper and Cage, who really should get two nominations. Cage’s interaction with himself is right up there with the work of Jeremy Irons playing twins in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.” Streep and Cooper share some unusual moments that are gloriously funny, profound and startling, oftentimes all at once. In a year with many fine performances, there are few films (“The Hours,” “Chicago,” “Far From Heaven” and “Moonlight Mile”) with as many perfect performances as “Adaptation.”
The greatest joy of this film, though, is the screenplay. What else would one expect from a screenwriter writing about his own experiences in a film about writing? This script is smart, sarcastic and witty. It is often brutal in its attacks, but it is always honest. The moviemaking process, writing, relationships, sibling rivalry, evolution and personality are all topics explored in this film.
Kaufman believes in the power of film to not just tell a story, but to challenge an audience. “Adaptation” challenges the audience to follow the story and to think beyond the plot playing out on the screen. This screenplay deserves all the accolades and awards it has received over the last few months.
Many films this year have shown us characters struggling to understand their place and meaning in the world. “Adaptation” is one more of those. Two of the characters in the film seem to have already found their place and meaning, while the other two have that universal yearning. Kaufman and Jonze have created a film that encourages the audience to think about life differently and perhaps discover new truths.
If “Being John Malkovich” was not for you, don’t give up on “Adaptation” without a look. The quirkiness quota has been lowered this time around. But the humor and insight into the human condition are equal to or greater than in the previous film.
There is something for everyone in “Adaptation.” In a year of many outstanding films, there is nothing else playing in multiplexes quite like this “Adaptation.”
Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Charlie/Donald Kaufman: Nicolas Cage; Susan Orlean: Meryl Streep; John Laroche: Chris Cooper; Valerie: Tilda Swinton; Robert McKee: Brian Cox; Amelia: Cara Seymour.