Adaptation (2002)

Originally Reviewed on 8/3/2011

While I know I’ve been asking a lot of questions in my reviews as of late, allow me the latitude to ask one more.

Ever “self narrate”?

You know, self narrate.  Take the events going on in your day to day life and do a mental narration?  Kind of like a self imposed voice over for your daily what nots.  Makes life more interesting, doesn’t it.  Well, here’s another question.  Ever exaggerate these mental monologues?  Maybe you put yourself in more interesting places, surrounded by more interesting people, getting yourself in more compelling situations.  Ever conjure a more fascinating you?

If not, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich) certainly did.  In the process of adapting a rambling book called the Orchid Thief, Kaufman not only inserted himself in his movie, he documented his internal struggling in doing so, highlighting fears, ambitions, self doubt and finally creative breakthrough.  The result of this experiment is Adaptation, one of the strangest and most compelling filmgoing experiences from the last ten years.

Directed once again by Spike Jonze, Adaptation is the story of its writer, Charlie Kaufman, an all of sudden hit of Hollywood who, despite his success, lacks self esteem in nearly every aspect of his life.  From the women he fantasizes about to his personal appearance to the screenplay he needs to adapt, Kaufman is man without a direction, ambling his way through the chic world of late nineties Hollywood.  Kaufman, in inserting himself into the movie, forces himself to really examine what he is who is and who he wants to be, a task that could have self serving and boring but is brought to life by the fantastic direction of Spike Jonze.  Jonze seems to have a knack for pulling of Kaufman’s oddball stories and does so with flair and imagination.

Of all the tricks in Jonze’s arsenal, the most compelling one is the creation of the Kaufman character himself.  Nicholas Cage plays both Kaufman and in a feat of camera trickery, his live-in brother Donald.  Donald is an aspiring screenwriter who not only mirrors the type of fun, outgoing person Kaufman secretly wants to be, personifies everything he feels is wrong with the Hollywood machine.  The result is a playful and near genius wink to the system that brought him fame.  Cage is fantastic in both roles, disappearing into both characters seamlessly.  If you’ve ever doubted Cage’s skills as an actor, Adaptation will set you the right way.

Luckily, Cage has some help as the rest of the ensemble cast is just as fantastic.  From Meryl Streep as the author of the book to Chris Cooper as the wild child horticulturalist (in an Oscar winning performance) to Cara Seymour as Kaufman’s love interest, this is a perfectly chosen cast.  Despite the best efforts of everybody involved, it’s the brief turn of famed character actor Brian Cox as screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee that not only steals the show but serves as the catalyst for the films eventual downfall.  Two thirds of the way through the movie, Kaufman goes to one of McKee’s seminars in a fit of desperation and learns about of all of the teacher’s “don’ts of screenwriting”, which include lack of voiceover, avoiding acts of God, etc.  While the class proves inspirational for the writer, Kaufman goes ahead and peppers the final third of the film with exactly the type of devices McKee warns about.  While I’m sure this was done as a wink to the “know-it-all film teachers”, the third act suffers greatly for it, coming off contrived, clichéd and bland in comparison to the brilliant two thirds.  Luckily, the audience is invested enough with the characters to excuse these flaws in the narrative and while the film ends on a pleasing note, I would have loved to see the story play itself out without the almost corny plot twists of the final frame.

Despite my criticisms, Adaptation is a triumph and a success on almost every level.  Brimming with originality, self depreciating humor and a startling insight to the pressures of creativity, Kaufman and Jonze have created a lasting film experience that should be seen by anybody who has ever dreamed up a heightened reality for themselves or simply just dreamed.  In another writer or directors hands, this could have been a pretentious mess but thanks to some extremely smart decisions, Adaptation isn’t just an interesting experiment, it’s a wholly realized success.  And if you’re one of those people who’ve never done that self narration I mentioned in the opening paragraph, give it a shot sometime.  If Charlie Kaufman was able to conjure up Adaptation by doing just that, imagine what’s brimming in your own self conscious.

Score – 90%

About Bill Tucker

Jersey based and New York bred, Bill Tucker is an author of film reviews, short fiction and articles for variety of sites and subjects. He currently blogs for The Austinot (Austin lifestyle), the Entertainment Weekly Blogging Community (TV and film) and (retro gaming). He's also contributed articles to Texas Highways magazine. His favorite pastimes include craft beer snobbery, gaming and annoying his friends with random quotes from The King of Comedy. You can check out all of his literary naughty bits at View all posts by Bill Tucker

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