18) Adaptation. (2002)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Loosely based on The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton & Brian Cox
I’m sitting here staring at an empty screen, trying to find a starting point. This is irony. It’s not like I have nothing to say either, if anything there are so many things to say about this film that I don’t know where to begin. Having spent last night drinking my face off to forget the way the Canucks blew it, I’m now two days late in turning this in. Parallels are running thick, but I’m going to stop inserting myself into the writing of this. It’s lazy and selfish, though somewhat appropriate, and I did enough of that in the last entry to last me a while. Maybe if I just start writing, something will come.
To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.
Like me, Charlie Kaufman (Cage) has writer’s block. He’s struggling to turn Susan Orlean’s Orchid Thief into a screenplay. He’s struggling in general: with women, with self-esteem, with forming personal connections. For fictitious brother Donald (also Cage), life comes much easier. He’s a bit of an idiot, sure, but he doesn’t care. He gets girls. He’s happy. He’s everything that Charles is not. Except a screenwriter. He is that, too. Having taken Robert McKee’s course on Story, he’s working on a screenplay of his own, a ridiculous cop thriller called ‘The 3’. But more on that later.
Charlie knows what he wants his script to be, the trouble is in actually writing it. “I’d rather let the movie exist than be artificially plot-driven,” he tells a studio exec (Swinton) at a dinner-meeting. “I don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing. … I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases, y’know, or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t!” He wants to write a script where nothing much happens, appropriate for a book where nothing much happens. But in trying to put that script into words, nothing much happens. He doesn’t start to make real headway until he makes himself the protagonist of the story.
We open on Charlie Kaufman. Fat, old, bald, repulsive, sitting in a Hollywood restaurant, across from Valerie Thomas, a lovely, statuesque film executive. Kaufman, trying to get a writing assignment, wanting to impress her, sweats profusely. Fat, bald Kaufman paces furiously in his bedroom. He speaks into his hand-held tape recorder, and he says: “Charlie Kaufman. Fat, bald, repulsive, old, sits at a Hollywood restaurant with Valerie Thomas.”
Many of the film’s best moments involve Charlie dictating his script into a tape recorder. It works both because it’s cathartic to see him make progress, but also because we’ve already seen the parts of the script he’s dictating, finished and filmed. It is a layered enjoyment. At Donald’s insistence, he takes McKee’s course. It is a real course, and McKee is a real man, though Brian Cox plays him in the film. I have no doubt that Charlie actually took this course. That’s part of what makes the film so fun: it’s easy to imagine that most of it (the first two-thirds, anyway) actually happened. The realism goes off the rails, however, after inviting Donald on-board to help finish the script. Together, they go beyond the book, inventing a more exciting life for Orlean (Streep) and her subject, John LaRoche (Cooper).
Charlie fails to accomplish his goal of writing a screenplay where people fail to accomplish their goals. In the end, the script devolves into a drug-fuelled, gun-toting, chase-filled cliché. The third act seems to be the stumbling block for those who don’t like the film. I think it works perfectly — even when it’s artificial, it still feels organic. Kaufman learns profound lessons and grows as a person. He overcomes obstacles and succeeds. And yet by doing all of this, he has accomplished his goal. Ironically, he aimed to flop, and success is the biggest failure he could have ever happened upon. His failure is a success is a failure is a success. Like ouroboros, perpetually looping back on itself. Follow?
The acting is wonderful throughout. Cage plays two opposite characters and manages to make them both warm, funny and likable. I particularly love him repeatedly shouting “SHUT UP!” at Orlean as she berates him near the film’s end. It seems like award shows are falling all over themselves to congratulate Streep any time she’s in anything, but she really earns the accolades here. Cooper shows us LaRoche as a man both brilliant and ignorant, wise and insane. Jonze’s direction is visually inventive (as always), and he gets great performances from his entire cast.
In the end, the finished script is not unlike Donald’s split-personality thriller, The 3. Charlie, Donald and even Orlean as Kaufman has written her are all just duelling aspects of one mind. The mind’s inner workings are a recurring theme in all of Kaufman’s work, and here he has successfully tackled his own. He has made peace with himself, the clashing twins amalgamating into one personality by film’s end. He is changed. He is living. He is happy. It is good.