It’s a movie about flowers.
More like a movie about a book about flowers.
To begin, all but one of the main characters in the second Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze vehicle are real (the writing/directing tandem last worked together on 1999’s “Being John Malkovich”). Despite garnering screenwriting credits for the film, Donald Kaufman is not real. The other characters are byproducts of artistic liberties taken by Charlie Kaufman.
From Kaufman’s adaptation of Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” (New Yorker piece, turned novel), we see a film that maybe, at some point, wanted desperately to be about flowers. Charlie Kaufman would have us believe that.
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) slouches, his hairline and waistline are inversely related, with the latter expanding in middle age. His identical twin is his emotional foil. Donald Kaufman is the kind of adult who still punctuates his sentences with “bro” and thinks that come-ons like “you look hot tonight baby” work (and they do). Charlie’s desire to craft a script devoid of stereotypical fluff becomes Donald’s “Psycho” meets “Silence of the Lambs” thriller.
While Donald speeds through his Robert McKee (Brian Cox) taught screenwriting course, Charlie is bogged down adapting Orlean’s “sprawling New Yorker shit” into a script.
Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) wants so desperately to care about something that she ultimate turns her creation of “The Orchid Thief” into an obsession with John LaRoche (Chris Cooper). LaRoche is an autodidactic redneck to Orlean’s primmed and proper New York intellectual. She follows him through Florida tracking his obsession with orchids, his ability renounce his waxing and waning passions. She is trapped as a writer and LaRoche is her escape; he becomes her passion.
These two plotlines exist separately bound only by the Kaufman brothers’ script, with much of the Orlean/LaRoche plot happening significantly earlier in the film’s fictitious chronology while simultaneously serving as the script Kaufman wrote.
“Adaptation” unquestionably portrays some of the year’s finest acting, in arguably the year’s finest ensemble. Nicolas Cage’s performance as the Kaufman twins, despite being a technological feat, returns Cage to top form. Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean (nothing like the real Orlean) is damaged and convincingly wounded by the barriers she has built between herself and the world. A Hollywood guru of sorts, Robert McKee, is poked at by Kaufman’s script and Brian Cox’s hilariously accurate portrayal. Chris Cooper’s John LaRoche is the finest performance of the ensemble. Sans three front teeth, and some 20 pounds lighter, Cooper’s gangly intellectual-hick (should such an oxymoron exist) is a “fun character,” as Valerie (Tilda Swinton), a film executive, points out throughout.
Making his bones with skateboard and music videos, it is no surprise that Jonze’s lone weakness as a director is in his use of sound. The film’s score, by Carter Burwell, is nothing outstanding, and his use of sound and music pales in comparison to the films of his contemporaries, like P.T. Anderson’s 2002 film “Punch-Drunk Love.” As a feature-length filmmaker, Jonze holds himself in check, far more than with his music videos (he directed the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”).
The filmmakers would have us believe that “Adaptation” is the intersection between reality and fiction, a place where we, like voyeurs, watch a man struggling with a script for a movie, a movie that somehow you’re already watching. It is a manipulating voyage contrived and calculated each step of the way. But “Adaptation” is, at its core, about the difficulties associated with the process of adapting, albeit a literary work, or within our lives.
“Adaptation” is ultimately about failure and one’s inability to adapt. LaRoche calls adaptation “a profound process. It means you learn how to thrive in the world.” Charlie Kaufman isn’t thriving in the world and he is failing to adapt. Early on, Kaufman challenges himself to write a script devoid of Hollywood convention, or McKeeian principles. He simply wanted to write a script about flowers. He failed. “Adaptation” isn’t about flowers at all and in its saddening conclusion we see that Charlie Kaufman failed to adapt “The Orchid Thief” into the film he wanted to make. Instead, with the help of his brother Donald, he gave us something much, much better.