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With: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Cox, Roger Willie
Written by: Charlie Kaufman, "Donald Kaufman," based partially on the book by Susan Orlean
Directed by: Spike Jonze
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images
Running Time: 114
Date: 12/06/2002

Adaptation (2002)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Type Face

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in 1963, Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema forever with their self-reflexive masterpieces 8 1/2 and Contempt, respectively. Both films turned cinema back in upon itself and explored the nature of making films, economically, creatively and spiritually.

Since then, many younger filmmakers have not been able to resist the urge to follow in those grand footsteps. Hence we have silly little nuggets ranging from The Big Picture to Bowfinger to State and Main to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to this year's Simone. Most of these movies serve only to satirize Hollywood thinking and to make fun of egotistical producers and directors.

But the new film Adaptation, opening today in Bay Area theaters, stands apart. It has the nerve, the sensitivity and the unmitigated genius to tap into genuine artistic befuddlement, and root it within a scathing indictment of Hollywood thought. This film inexplicably has its cake and eats it too.

Adaptation is the brainchild of the two mad masterminds who brought us Being John Malkovich in 1999, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. After the success of Malkovich, Kaufman accepted the job of adapting Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a film.

But after a few tries, he realized he had no idea how to do it, and so instead he wrote this screenplay about a writer unable to adapt a novel into a film. And Jonze may have been the only director alive to realize that his wacky idea could work.

Kaufman could have stopped there and delivered a fairly entertaining film that, like a cup of popcorn, would have satisfied and immediately disappeared. But he continued to explore this path and came up with something great.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is not only having trouble adapting The Orchid Thief, he has a freeloading twin brother, Donald (Cage, pulling off the difficult job of playing opposite himself), who wants to be a screenwriter as well. Only Donald wants to write the epitome of the brain-dead Hollywood product, a serial killer story with a stupid twist ending. And of course, he has immediate success with it. He even lands a girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), while Charlie can barely summon the courage to talk to girls.

Meanwhile, Adaptation frequently cuts to the result of Charlie's labor, the Orchid Thief film, with Meryl Streep embodying Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper (who won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor) playing the rednecky title character, John Laroche. Laroche describes his passion for orchids to us and explains his theory of "adaptation," in which every living thing automatically finds its purpose in life.

As Charlie's situation grows darker and darker, he breaks down and enlists his brother's help to finish the script. Donald has attended one of those screenwriting seminars taught by guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), and both McKee and Donald give Charlie some essential advice. Soon, Charlie and Donald have flown to Florida to spy on Orlean and Laroche, uncovering not only a secret love affair, but also a narcotics ring.

This leads to precisely the kind of chase scene and shootout that Charlie originally wants to avoid in his screenplay. While hiding in the woods, Donald even teaches Charlie a valuable life lesson about not caring what other people think.

In one more level of absurd irony, the Adaptation screenplay is co-written by the non-existent Donald, and additionally the film is "dedicated" to Donald.

Adaptation is almost like the snake swallowing its own tail, except that the snake has magically survived long enough to enjoy dessert. It's a triple-twisty story that continually surprises, and yet remains earnestly true to its characters. These are real people stuck in a bizarre space-warp and are still beautifully affected by their day-to-day troubles.

Witness one touching scene in which Orlean phones Laroche one evening for some minor follow-up questions. The conversation seems pretty mundane -- Laroche greets his caller with a grinning "Susie Q!" -- but it's packed with gorgeous little truths and sadnesses. None of the three actors has given such strong performances in years; indeed, Adaptation may be their finest hour.

It's true that Being John Malkovich may have announced the arrival of two major film talents with Jonze and Kaufman, but Adaptation leaves that debut in the dust and reaches for true greatness. It's a film that does Fellini and Godard proud, and without question it's one of the year's very best.

DVD Details: Columbia/TriStar skimped on the extras in order to present this in a high-quality Superbit edition, whith theoretically uses space that ordinarily gets used up by extras in order to preserve the picture and sound.

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