Friday, May 4, 2012

I am Writing this Title

Film: Adaptation
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players

Charlie Kaufman is a weird cat. In many ways, Kaufman is the quintessential indie film geek made good, the guy who writes the strangest, craziest scripts based on the most bizarre ideas, and makes them work. His movies go places that no one else would think to go. He’s daring and he’s gutsy, and quite possibly a genius. I’ve liked a lot of Kaufman’s scripts, but I’ve liked his crazy ideas more. Adaptation is perhaps his craziest, and perhaps his best.

This is not an easy film to summarize, but I’ll do my best. Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has been presented with the book “The Orchid Thief” to turn into a screenplay. The book concerns a man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who works with Seminole Indians in Florida to poach rare orchids. Because the orchids grow on formerly tribal lands, no law enforcement agency has been successful in prosecuting the Seminoles for poaching such plants. Laroche’s idea is to find a way to grow the orchids in his greenhouse and make them available, or at least that is the story he gives the book’s author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). In this scenario, the orchids become available to the general public, poaching stops, and Laroche gets rich, a win-win-win scenario.

The problem for Kaufman is that he can’t find a real plot in the book. Much of the book concerns something called a “ghost orchid” that Orlean never gets to see. Since there really is no plot and since the book is essentially about flowers, Kaufman doesn’t have a place to begin his screenplay and has no destination for it. Enter his fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman (also played by Cage), who wants to become a screenwriter as well. Donald takes a class from a man named McKee (Brian Cox) and begins working on his own script, a thriller of dubious quality but with lots of Hollywood-style pizzazz and action.

Donald is in many ways Charlie’s opposite. Where Charlie is introspective, nervous, self-conscious, painfully shy, and mildly agoraphobic, Donald is shallow, unassuming, oblivious, and mildly charming. He quickly gets a girlfriend, pens his script, and sells it for something close to seven figures, which only puts more pressure on Charlie, who is now well over his deadline for his own script, and no closer to starting.

And this is where things get weird. Kaufman essentially writes himself into the script, and the script starts being about his writing of the script that he is writing, creating multiple levels of self-reference. In the real world, then, at one point, the real Charles Kaufman was writing a script in which the character Charles Kaufman was writing a script in which a meta-fictionalized Charles Kaufman is writing a script about writing a script for “The Orchid Thief.”

Then, in the top level of the film, we discover that our top-level fictional Susan Orlean has become obsessed with Laroche. She also discovers that Laroche’s motives are not what he said they were—the ghost orchid can be used to make a particularly effective drug that causes the user to become enchanted and fascinated with the things they see. Hooked on this new, bizarre drug and running off for illicit trysts with Laroche becomes her new obsession. Meanwhile, Charlie takes the same screenwriting class from McKee and is told that writing a script in which nothing happens is ridiculous.

Then everything comes to a head. The events of the last half hour are either a staggering cop-out of astronomical proportions or the most subtle and sly dig and a further level of self-reference. I choose the latter in my own interpretation of the film. But I won’t spoil it here—this isn’t a film to read a spoiler on, even accidentally.

This is not a film that has a middle ground, I think. Either you see it and appreciate the ever tightening spiral of continuous self-reference or it becomes an exercise in self indulgence and mental masturbation. It seems to be one or the other, which makes a certain amount of sense for a film that is doing something so new. For the record, I fall on the former side of this—there is a particular brilliance to this film that is impossible to deny.

Adaptation also goes to show that Nicolas Cage, for all his acting in films like Drive Angry, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and the National Treasure series, is capable of a nuanced and emotional performance. Cage has a great deal of talent, because this film wouldn’t work even slightly if he didn’t. The performances by Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are perhaps less surprising, but no less great.

I understand why Nick (with a k), my podcasting partner, is enamored of this film. It’s smart, innovative, and an almost entirely new take on what a story is and what it can be. That said, I certainly understand why some folks wouldn’t like it.

Why to watch Adaptation: The most unusual story you’re likely to see for a very long time.
Why not to watch: The whole film is a snake eating its own tail.


  1. Good review. I thoroughly enjoyed this film. My take on the latter part of the film is that Charlie's twin brother collaborated with him and we were now seeing the section of the script that he wrote with all the action and improbable plot turns. I also love that the Academy (notorious for not having a sense of humor) nominated both Charlie and his non-existent twin brother for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

    I used to love describing this as "a movie about a screenplay about a book about an orchid thief."

    Two other small things I liked - the cameos from Being John Malkovich, and the real Kaufman briefly appearing on screen as a reflection when Cage looks at himself in a mirror.

  2. I agree with you that this film is something special, and for me it works because it does continually spiral down into more and more specific self-reference. That said, I fully understand why there are people who would throw up their hands and walk away from this, completely aggravated.

    I like how the the Malkovich stuff was worked in so seamlessly. Very clever.

    The nomination of the fictional Donald Kaufman is the first time a wholly fictional character was ever nominated for an Oscar.

  3. This is one of the best films in the entire 1001 film book. I love everything about it. After years of less than stellar work and crappy films, Streep had a sort of comeback with her performance here. Overall, a true cinematic gem.

    1. I admit,the moment the Kaufman on screen started talking to himself about writing the script that I'd been watching for an hour, I started smiling, and didn't stop for several minutes.

      Meryl Streep is allowed an off couple of years. I'll still watch her in just about anything.

  4. I love the mindfuck this movie is. And I love how you make a reference to The Vlog there at the very end... and not only that, to a season of the Vlog that was inspired by none other than... Adaptation! Gotta love meta.

    1. It's not just meta--it's also loads and loads of self-reference. It does go round and round, and that's really the joy.

    2. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm relatively sure (like, 100%) meta IS self-reference.

    3. It is--it just goes a level deeper than being simply meta.

  5. This is one of my favorite movies of the whole decade. I couldn't tell you exactly when in the movie it was, but I remember very well "getting it" and going from thinking "okay, this film is going waaaaay off the rails, I'm hating this" to "hold up, OF COURSE IT IS, THIS IS SO BRILLIANT." It was literally like a light switch flipping in my brain. I actually haven't watched it again since then, but I really really need to.

    1. The whole film is a controlled skid into that last half hour, and even that is tongue-in-cheek and self-referential. For me, the moment of "this is genius" comes when he starts to consciously write himself into the script that we're watching. He's writing what we've watched and we're watching as he's writing what we've watched.

  6. I watched Adaptation this afternoon and I liked it quite a bit! Especially some of Charles's remarks to Donald's movie ideas. (And I got a kick out of the line about "no new genres since Fellini invented the mockumentary." Do people actually say that? Or is Donald just getting his filmmakers mixed up?)

    I was kind of disappointed that we didn't get to see a few scenes from Donald's movie The Three. But this isn't Grindhouse or Tropic Thunder, so the audience was deprived of that cinematic wonder.

  7. I think maybe there's only so far that you can go for self-reference in anything, and Donald's movie might be the tipping point.