It may be tough to get exactly right, but great writers really tend to make great writing look easy. Take a look at Kurt Vonnegut (one of my all-time favorite authors), for instance: his unmistakable blend of still-timely satire, pitch-black comedy, and humorously tragic stories cannot be replicated by anybody else, yet in his best work, it flows off the page so smoothly that I can’t help but think of it as anything but effortless. The same thing goes for Charlie Kaufman, whose excellent screenplay for the wonderfully strange Being John Malkovich gave me the impression that he could literally make a great script out of anything.
As a matter of fact, he couldn’t—at least, not for Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, which left him facing writer’s block. So, in a perfectly Kaufman-esque move, he decided to make his next movie a half-true, half-fictional story of his struggles adapting that very book. Without telling anybody except Spike Jonze, whose support wasn’t enough to convince Kaufman that turning in such a screenplay wouldn’t put a swift end to his entire career… though he was still gutsy enough to do so anyway.
And the finished product, Adaptation., didn’t just make some money, but, in a delicious bit of irony, even got him a very well-deserved “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar nom. Considering how loopy and offbeat Kaufman’s vision is, perhaps the excellent talent involved with the film (namely, Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, the latter of whom plays two characters at once) helped it nab that particular honor, and win a “Best Actor” trophy for Chris Cooper. Or perhaps it’s just because it’s an excellent movie, period. Yeah, I’m going with the latter.
Despite featuring some (albeit noticeably—and appropriately— less than Being John Malkovich) of the quirky comedy you might expect from Kaufman (played here by the first, and most central Cage), the film pulls no punches when exploring who he really is*: a depressed, self-loathing, stressed-out mess that can’t pull himself out of his social anxiety and low self-esteem, even with the production of Being John Malkovich going really well. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, John Cusack, John Malkovich, and Catherine Keener all make uncredited cameos as themselves, as do Lance Accord—Malkovich’s director of photography—and Jonze).
Meanwhile, he’s got his eager, loudmouthed brother Donald [who a) is, of course, played by the second Cage, and b) despite being completely fictional, is actually given a writing credit for the film, taking the extreme meta qualities of it even further], who even wants to write a screenplay of his own, living with him at home. Despite Charlie’s insistence that attending one of Robert McKee’s (a famous real-life lecturer and story consultant, played here by Brian Cox) seminars won’t lead him anywhere, he does so anyway, and winds up writing The 3: a psychological thriller about a serial killer whose split personality disorder somehow causes him to metaphorically be multiple different people at once, all while actually remaining inside the same body**.
Of course, such a concept makes no sense (Charlie in particular goes into much detail about obvious logical errors of this), but that doesn’t stop Donald from passionately pursuing it nevertheless. Where this ultimately leads him is a place I won’t spoil, but given the success of Hollywood thrillers even less inspired than that, it comes as absolutely no surprise.
On top of all that, Charlie’s hired to adapt The Orchid Thief for the big screen, and its unusual structure—which even critics were mixed about when the book was first released—and lack of a real plot quickly leave him frustrated and confused. As somebody who can find himself dealing with writer’s block too (even with these reviews, which I still love doing), his constant indecisiveness over where to start, what to write, and what to even do with such a dense book are nothing short of painfully relatable. If I ever were to become a Hollywood screenwriter myself, I’m 100% sure I would find myself facing the exact same challenges that Charlie does at least once, even if I was extremely talented at it.
In the midst of Charlie’s struggles, another story quickly emerges: one that follows Susan Orlean’s (Streep) journey into the world of ghost orchid poaching three years earlier, and her professional relationship with the orchid poacher she’s interviewing, John Laroche (Cooper). As she gets deeper into his life and the rigors of orchid hunting, however, things start getting… complicated. And a lot weirder.
Up until then, though, this part of the story actually does serve as a faithful adaptation of The Orchid Thief, but—I have to admit—initially didn’t really seem to fit alongside Charlie’s chunk of the film at all. So I sat in my seat, waiting for Kaufman to pull both of these loose strings together in the most unexpected, yet deeply satisfying way possible, just like he did in Malkovich. And boy howdy, does he ever.
Sure, the hard-right tonal shift the film suddenly takes in its last 20 minutes may be a tad at odds with the rest of the film, but that’s exactly the point. Without getting into any detail, the climactic events of this movie simultaneously serve as a perfectly jolting conclusion to both Charlie’s and Susan’s journeys, and a subtle, postmodernist commentary on the screenwriting clichés and no-nos so many people eat up today. For lack of a better phrase, it’s a conclusion that actually succeeds in having its cake and eating it too, and comes out smelling like a rose—or a gorgeous, mystical ghost orchid, for that matter.
Adaptation.’s direction, cinematography, music, and editing are all fantastic across the board, but it’s the performances alone that make it an absolute must-see. Nicolas Cage has kind of become a parody of himself these days, but here, his twin performances are so excellent that they make the ultra-neurotic Charlie and the eager Donald completely indistinguishable, despite their only psychical differences being their respective hairlines. Meanwhile, Streep renders Orlean’s gradual transformation*** utterly—and frighteningly—believable, as does Cooper for Laroche.
Now here’s the loaded question: is Adaptation. better than Being John Malkovich? Keeping in mind that they’re two different films going for different things (even with the same writing-directing team behind them), I’m still going to say… maybe so. I use the word “maybe” because I might need to rewatch both of them before coming to any real conclusion in that area, but if somebody ever were to make a better or more honest movie about the creative process, I don’t want to know about it. Really, I just don’t.
*The real-life Kaufman even said “The emotions that Charlie is going through [in the film] are real and they reflect what I was going through when I was trying to write the script.” So despite his clarification right afterwards that “Of course there are specific things that have been exaggerated or changed for cinematic purposes”, Charlie’s frustrations and anxieties in the film are still completely real, and not something he just put in there for the sake of making himself look more “troubled”.
**The greatest irony of this is that not even five years later, two films unironically borrowing from The 3’s plot would be released: one that I probably shouldn’t name for the sake of remaining spoiler-free, though you can easily find it on the bottom of Adaptation.’s Wikipedia page; and the Christian horror-thriller—are you sitting down?—Thr3e. No joke.
***Unsurprisingly, the real-life Susan Orlean was initially opposed to the screenplay once it was submitted for her approval, thinking that it was going to “ruin my entire career”. After being told that everybody else loved it, however, she not only approved of it (albeit reluctantly so), but even grew to love it herself, naming Streep’s performance “one of my [favorites] by her”. Really, her winding up as a good sport towards the film in the first place is gracious enough as it is.