“Adaptation.” begins on the set of “Being John Malkovich,” the previous collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, with the schlumpy, self-deprecating scripter, as impersonated by Nicolas Cage, sitting on the sidelines. But the sidelines are emphatically where Kaufman does not remain this time out, as the writer has put himself front and center in this eccentrically personalized “adaptation” of a bestselling book that is every bit as clever and surprising as “Malkovich.” With its sterling cast and anticipated strong critical support, Sony release will be a must-see among film-savvy urban audiences upon its release Dec. 6, and with luck and smart marketing could attract the attention of a curious mainstream public looking for something different.
One of the many self-reflexive jokes in “Adaptation.” is that Kaufman, whose stack of anxieties and neuroses makes Woody Allen look like a carefree bon vivant, has to make everything he writes about himself. How he manages this feat in this case, which started out as an assignment to do a straight adaptation of a non-fiction book about an obsessive orchid breeder in Florida, represents the core of the film, one which is packed with industry references but not in a way unfriendly to the general viewer.
Multi-layered, time-jumping tale takes a self-consciously analytical look at the storytelling process and, centrally, at a writer’s need to passionately engage his/her material — or not. The “real” Kaufman pulls this off by splitting himself into twin brothers Charlie and Donald (both played by Cage). With their thinning hair and paunches, they look identical, but are otherwise diametric opposites: Whereas Charlie is morose, depressive, introspective, anti-social, fanatical about the purity of his work and given to breaking out in a sweat in the presence of a pretty woman, Donald is casual, party-prone, blissfully superficial, lucky in love, oblivious to artistic niceties and pragmatically dedicated to making his work as commercial as possible.
The two personalities come into contrast, if not conflict, when Donald crashes at Charlie’s conspicuously undecorated Hollywood home to write a multiple-personality-serial-killer script that he’s certain will sell big. When he asks his esteemed brother for advice, Charlie can barely conceal his disdain for Donald’s naive embrace of every overworked Hollywood cliche, as well as for his obedient adherence to every dictum prescribed by screenwriting guru Robert McKee.
But Charlie can ill-afford to feel too superior to Donald, given his own current stasis. Hand-picked by a “Malkovich”-loving studio exec (Tilda Swinton, looking her best ever) to pen the script to New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s bestselling “The Orchid Thief,” Charlie can’t find a way into the esoteric material. Nor can he summon the nerve to even kiss a sympathetic young woman, Amelia (Cara Seymour), who seems willing to cope with Charlie’s considerable baggage.
So while Donald is in the next room merrily banging away, both on his killer screenplay and on ditzy new g.f. Caroline (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Charlie suffers the agonies of creative and emotional constipation. And, as we see, the material at hand could scarcely be further from his frame of reference. In deftly integrated flashbacks, Susan (Meryl Streep) is shown undertaking her own investigation in order to know and understand orchid lover John Laroche (Chris Cooper) for a magazine piece that will subsequently be expanded into the book Kaufman will tackle. Laroche is a unique character, an intellectually brilliant and startlingly articulate good ol’ boy who was arrested for spiriting rare plant species, including the prize ghost orchid, out of an Everglades preserve.
Endlessly loquacious, Laroche, whose sinewy attractiveness is undercut by a missing set of upper front teeth, enthusiastically tells his interlocutor everything she could possibly want to know about orchids. This leads to the breezy but significant introduction of grander themes; in a strand that briefly and amusingly brings Charles Darwin into the proceedings, “adaptation” comes not only to refer to the book-to-screen process, but to the concept of what it takes (for both flowers and humans) to get along in an often harsh world.
On a personal level, Laroche’s initially unaccountable zeal for orchids slowly makes Susan realize the lack of a similar passion in her own life and consider what she might do about it. By extension, this longing touches Charlie, who finds that the only way to surmount his writer’s block is to place himself in the center of the story, just as Kaufman did in real life.
Narrative then begins leapfrogging backward and forward even more acrobatically than before. As Laroche movingly reveals his backstory to Susan, then takes her into the swamp to find the perfect orchid, Charlie goes to New York with the intention of meeting Susan, about whom he’s begun to have erotic fantasies based solely on her dust jacket photograph. But paralyzed with tension, he can’t bring himself to even say hello to her during a chance elevator encounter. So Donald, who has just sold his serial killer script for some $1 million, agrees to pose as Charlie to “interview” Susan to provide the missing elements for the script.
Reluctantly, Charlie takes Robert McKee’s scriptwriting seminar, and a subsequent intense barroom chat with the lecturer provides the springboard to the deliberately melodramatic and violent climax. Brian Cox does an outstanding, virtually dead-on impersonation of the confrontational, tough-talking McKee, although one has to wonder if Kaufman and Jonze originally hoped to pull another Malkovich by having McKee appear as himself.
Ingeniously, then, Kaufman has written an illuminating and entertaining film that at least purports to be about the very process he went through trying to write an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief.” Ironically, the only place it stumbles is in its self-conscious attempt to follow the “rules” of well structured screenwriting by providing a conventional action ending that metes fates upon two of the characters that seem cruel and unusual in context. It’s hard to know what to make of this clearly concocted resolution involving “real” characters toyed with in fictional ways.
As in “Malkovich,” Kaufman’s imaginative leaps are perfectly served by Jonze’s quicksilver directing style. Able to communicate key information in highly economical ways, Jonze keeps the film light on its feet even as it ponders (in a nifty early sequence) the creation of the world or the way nature has matched individual flowers to their perfectly color-coordinated pollinating bee. And as before, the vibrant lensing of Lance Acord, nimble editing by Eric Zumbrunnen, eclectic production design by KK Barrett and charmingly offbeat percussive score by Carter Burwell — all “Malkovich” vets — are all of a piece with the whole. Simple decisions by costume designer Casey Storm helpfully insure that Charlie and Donald can always be differentiated.
Cage’s dual performances as the twins rep his best work in years. His Charlie is the center of the picture, and thesp wonderfully expresses the character’s forlorn bearing and pathetic self-image; to go along with it, he’s let his “Con Air” hard body go to an opposite extreme of flabby shapelessness. Although the object of Charlie’s (and, by extension, the audience’s) condescending scorn, the fictional alter ego Donald (who receives official co-author screen credit) ultimately emerges winningly, in Cage’s freewheeling contrasting turn, for his can-do attitude and incurably optimistic view of life’s challenges.
As a thoughtful, reactive woman who spends most of her time absorbing things and turning them over in her mind, Streep gives a quietly alert performance that permits emotional revelation in well-judged stages.
But all but stealing the film is Cooper, who seizes a rare opportunity as an extroverted, rather than buttoned-up, character to bust loose like an uncaged alligator. Merely fascinating while spill
ing his detailed knowledge of arcane subjects, Cooper’s Laroche evolves into a deeply realized figure as he unexpectedly lifts the curtain on his life story.
Supporting cast is brightened by a gallery of lively, individualistic women that includes the attractively offbeat Seymour, a sprightly Gyllenhaal, the authoritative Swinton and Judy Greer as a particularly friendly waitress. Director Curtis Hanson turns up as Susan’s husband, while Malkovich, Catherine Keener, John Cusack, director David O. Russell and others appear fleetingly in appropriate contexts.