Adaptation
A Film directed by Spike Jonze
written by Charles & Donald Kaufman


The new film from writer Charles Kaufman (and his fictional brother Donald) and director Spike Jonze - the team that brought us the quirky and provocative Being John Malkovich - raises the time-honored question, how does one follow-up on a remarkable debut? The answer - also time-honored - is that it is not easy. While Adaptation shows much of the ingenuity and imagination of the earlier film, it gets lost in cleverness for its own sake and never manages a satisfactory resolution.

The title is part of a running joke. The film revolves around the attempts of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) - the name of the screen writer of the film - to adapt the actual best-selling non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, by real-life New Yorker Magazine staffer Susan Orlean (played here by Meryl Streep) for the movies. The book is about, among other things, the ways various species of orchids have "adapted" in order to survive in the environment.

Frustrated and overwhelmed by the daunting task of adapting a book with no strong narrative line or dramatic situations, the fictional Kaufman in the film - and his real alter-ego - decide to base the "adaptation" on the struggle to write a script. The result is a montage of scenes, moving back and forth in time and creating multiple layers of flashbacks within flashbacks, that seems intended as a modern "comedy of manners."

In addition to real-life characters played by actors, (including Brian Cox as screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and Chris Cooper as orchid fancier John Laroche), there are real-life characters playing themselves - including actors Jon Cusak, Catherine Keener and John Malkovich. There are the usual fictional characters, and a central imaginary character: Charles Kaufman's twin brother Donald - also played by Cage - who receives a credit as co-screenwriter, and to whose "memory" the film is dedicated, according to an end credit.

If all of this sounds a bit confusing - well, it is meant to be. Unfortunately, the disorienting surrealism of the story-line - which was effective in John Malkovich in breaking down expectations and opening up audiences to a whimsical, but never facetious exploration of the nature of identity and consciousness - seems employed here merely as a "technique."

As in Pulp Fiction - another film highly praised for perceived innovations in narrative structure - the inventive approach appears on reflection as a slick parlor trick, rather than as something in service to a more complex and meaningful purpose. Like Seinfeld, the television show purportedly "about nothing," Adaptation turns out to be a loosely connected series of mostly amusing episodes with a somewhat psychedelically tenuous relationship to narrative logic, strung together with witty language and bold leaps of imagination, in a decorative but ultimately inconsequential pattern.

The underlying weakness is that, while the movie effectively debunks the Hollywood theory of screenwriting by formula, it doesn't produce anything effective to replace it and in the end, falls back on a parody version of the "Hollywood Ending" complete with car crashes and characters stalking each other through the swamp at night. While this send-up is meant to make light of conventional film making, it is actually a lame attempt to escape from the corner into which the film has painted itself by "rejecting" these values.

In the same vein, the film superficially satirizes many aspects of Hollywood life, but this parody is sanitized, insider-friendly, and devoid of any of the undercurrent of anguish that would give it the edge that makes work like that of Evelyn Waugh, or Robert Altman's The Player so effective and moving.

Above and beyond the such failures within its own context, is the fact that that context - the trials and tribulations the life of a Hollywood screenwriter - is not presented in a way that adds any depth or breadth to what is, essentially, a series of Hollywood "in-jokes". Unless one cares about Kaufman's struggle, the story becomes manipulative and pointless - and the filmmakers don't give us any reason to care. In fact, by jumping back and forth between real, fictional and imaginary characters, they undermine our investment in any emotional significance at all.

There are many good gags, lots of sharp dialogue and deft plot twists - but none of this good material connects to provide anything more than two hours of light and instantly-forgettable diversion. In fact, the film is so discontinuous in its approach that any impact one scene may create is often eradicated by the virtual non-sequitur that follows it.

In Being John Malkovich, a similarly disjointed approach to narrative worked - as did a fantastic plot - because the heart of the film was clearly recognizable as a metaphoric meditation on identity. The situations that ensued and the issues that were raised - honesty, the importance of integrity, the nature of "identity," the divide between self-image and reality, just to name a few - are universal and important, addressed by each of us in our own lives.

In Adaptation, larger issues like these are never brought into focus, and in spite of some (seemingly random) philosophical musing about adaptation - the tendency of organisms to transmute themselves for biological advantage, as reflected in human behavior and psychology (mostly lifted wholesale from Orlean's book) - the film never gets beyond its own adroit but superficial exercises.

Comedy only becomes really effective and important when it moves past the sight-gag-for-its-own-sake stage and uses its various tools to serve a compelling story or illuminate important aspects of individual and collective behavior. W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) opined in one of his lyrics that in order to communicate hard truths and criticism to a mass audience it was necessary to "always gild the philosophic pill" with humor. It was an astute observation. Unfortunately, in the case of Adaptation, the beautifully and very effectively gilded capsule proves to be nothing but a placebo.

The productions values of the film are competently professional. While there is nothing remarkable in the camera-work, editing, music, costumes or production design, they fully satisfy the script's modest demands.

The exception is the seamless computer-enhanced insertion work demonstrated in the scenes between the Kaufman brothers, where two Nicolas Cages appear simultaneously on screen. They cross and recross each other and interact physically in a variety of ways without the slightest hint of "trick photography." But the very success of this deception has the side-effect of undermining the effectiveness of other aspects of the film.

Aside from the intricately and fascinatingly - if pointlessly - constructed script - the main delights of this film lie in the performances. The four central roles, two played by Nic Cage as the Kaufman brothers and one each by Meryl Streep, as author Orlean, and Chris Cooper as hillbilly horticulturalist Laroche, are all excellent.

Cage creates two distinct and consistently recognizable personalities for the Kaufmans, using subtle variations of facial expression, body language and speech patterns. Within individual scenes, he is able to create believable emotional tones with which the audience could certainly identify - if we weren't so distracted by marvelling at how well the special effects can put two characters whom we know to both be Nicolas Cage on-screen at the same time. This is a typical instance where the film's use of innovative structure undermines its emotional continuity.

That Cage carries it off as well as he does in spite of such problems is a credit to his ability to submerge himself in a role and create solid, believable characters. In many of his scenes he succeeds in creating situations in which emotional content is palpable - however temporarily.

Meryl Streep shows her flair for comic seriousness. She evolves from a genteel and repressed writer of reflective, intellectual non-fiction to a sexually-voracious, drug-addled, gun-toting femme out of the pulp magazines or film-noir. She plays the former with her typical delicacy and reserve and the latter with obvious gusto. She even manages to make the rather far-fetched transition credible. She does her best to imbue her sometimes artificially-written character with sincerity, and largely succeeds.

Chris Cooper, perhaps best know for his chilling turn as the repressed and murderously violent father in American Beauty, creates a completely different character here. His John Laroche is a complex mix of down-home, good-time, good-old-boy; sensitive, philosophical, ecologically-aware orchid-fancier; ingenious, anti-authoritarian poacher; and a spontaneous, earthy sensualist. who awakens Streep's Orlean.

His character has the fewest stumbling blocks to development and with an energetic and honest approach to the embodiment of these very diverse characteristics, Cooper manages to build the most sympathetic character in the film.

But Adaptation is not about believable characters, or situations that have any authentic emotional resonance or larger implications. It is a bold and interesting experiment with technique - both narrative and visual - but its foundation is no more than self-referential narcissism, like a very creative and precocious two-year-old saying: "Look what I can do!"

The achievements and innovations it represents will no doubt prove liberating and useful to future films. It is certainly valuable on that account. It is diverting, surprising and amusing in many respects, and a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. Adaptation's ultimate surrender of substance to style, however, makes it more an interesting cinematic curiosity and less a work of lasting meaning.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?