THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Adaptation is perhaps the most complicated movie to explain that I have ever encountered. Somebody asked me what it was about, and I spent about five minutes trying to fumble my way around it. Sometimes a complex plot is a bad thing, but in this case it only means that Adaptation is one of the most offbeat and original movies you're ever likely to see.

Let's try to make this as simple as we can. In this corner, we have Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a screenwriter who penned 1999's acclaimed comedy Being John Malkovich. As a follow-up, Kaufman wants to adapt "The Orchid Thief" - a book by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Her book is about a man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper) who made a career seeking out rare orchids to sell, often finding ways of bypassing the legalities of taking them. Charlie is moved by the book but he has trouble adapting its non-narrative into the screenplay format. He tells his agent (Ron Livingston) that he doesn't want to make a movie with any of Hollywood's usual trappings: chase scenes, shoot-outs, character arcs in which people learn big life lessons. He simply wants to make a movie about "how amazing flowers are" - to which the agent asks, "Are flowers amazing?"

In the other corner, we have Charlie's twin brother Donald (also played by Cage). He's never written a script before but wants to start. His concept - which he continually "pitches" to Charlie - is total Hollywood fabrication. It is familiar, predictable, high concept. It is everything Charlie's scripts are not. Donald tries to help Charlie adapt "The Orchid Thief" by suggesting he put in a few of those cliches. He even encourages Charlie to attend a screenwriting seminar run by Robert McKee (Brian Cox), a famous instructor who specializes in teaching the screenwriting formula.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) gets some unwanted advice from twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage) in Adaptation.
Here's where it gets complicated. Charlie Kaufman is a real person who actually did write Being John Malkovich. Susan Orlean is also real, as is her book. Robert McKee and John Laroche are real too. Donald Kaufman is not. As used in Adaptation, Donald is the alter ego of Charlie: his worst impulses realized in human form - the nagging little voice inside the real Charlie's head, telling him to sell out because it would just be so much easier. Adaptation is a spot-on story of self-doubt. Charlie wants to take everything that moved him about this book and somehow transform it into a screenplay. The fact that he can't quite get there causes him endless amounts of grief. He stops just this side of literally flagellating himself for his failure.

Nicolas Cage is really amazing in both roles. You always know which brother you're watching. Cage gives each character a distinct personality, vocal rhythm, and even posture so that you never get confused. Even more impressive, he becomes both guys. Every ounce of Charlie's insecurity is present on the screen, right alongside Donald's annoying effortlessness. The back-and-forth between Charlie and Donald (or Charlie and himself) really pops out because Cage so brilliantly plays these opposite sides of the same coin.

It's kind of ironic that Adaptation is about Kaufman's inability to adapt "The Orchid Thief" because, on one level, it really is an adaptation of the book. The scenes with Streep and Cooper are played straight. They tell the story of how Susan Orlean met and became fascinated by Laroche, how she transformed his story into a best seller. Orlean's tale occupies nearly half the film, which means that, in some ways, Kaufman ultimately was successful. But then there's an even bigger irony: the suggestion is made that Charlie wrote the first two-thirds of Adaptation while Donald wrote the last. Without giving anything away, the story goes down a self-referential path at the end, incorporating - of all things - a car chase, a shoot-out, and a major life lesson. If your head isn't spinning yet, let me tell you that the script for Adaptation is credited to both Kaufmans - even though, as I said, Donald doesn't exist.

You can doubtlessly tell by now that this is a stunningly unusual film. I love the way it constantly reinvents itself, establishing its own rules, then breaking them. Charlie Kaufman (the real one) is a major writer because he's not afraid to play with the form. Just how nervy is this script? Consider that Kaufman has penned a scene in which his on-screen alter ego masturbates while having a sexual fantasy in which Orlean praises his adaptation of his book. Now, that takes guts. Kaufman has found a perfect partner in director Spike Jonze. Together, they take great pride in subverting the form of most Hollywood movies. In a time when so many filmmakers play it straight, these guys take real risks. There is so much mind-bending weirdness on display in (and around the edges of) Adaptation that you really need to see it twice for everything to sink in. I have a feeling that as I see this picture a few more times - which I absolutely will - it is going to take its place among my favorite films of all time.

When I was in college, I had a professor who tried to teach us something called "deconstructionism." This means that a story is essentially about itself. At the time, I couldn't grasp what she meant. These days, deconstructionism is big business, as it has been central to TV shows like "Seinfeld" and movies like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. If I had any lingering doubts about what deconstructionism is, they are gone after Adaptation. This movie is all about itself, giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective of its genius writer staring at himself in the mirror, not liking what he sees, and then daring to ponder what would happen if he gave control to that pesky imaginary brother floating around inside his head.

( out of four)

Adaptation is rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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