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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, and eager to please.  The visual effects that allow Cage to share the screen with himself throughout the film are terrific, but most of the credit really must go to Mr. Cage’s performance(s).  It’s hard to think of a film in which he has been better.  It’s a great combination of script, character(s), and actor.  Look no further than the spectacular opening credits, in which small white titles appear over a completely black screen, with no images whatsoever.  The whole sequence is carried by a hilariously rambling and self-hating monologue by Charlie, voiced by Mr. Cage.  It’s a riot, and tells us everything we need to know about this character — and also about the amazingly bizarre film that is about to unspool.

The cast that surrounds the two Nicolas Cage characters is spectacular as well.  I didn’t realize that I’d be having a Meryl Streep week at my house (when I popped Adaptation into my DVD player just a few days after having watched Defending Your Life), but I’m not complaining.  She’s terrific as New Yorker author Susan Orleans.  The arc of her relationship with Orchid Thief Laroche is played mostly in her face — as she moves from initial fascination to eventual disappointment — and she sells every moment marvelously.  Then there’s the sequence, late in the film, when she gets high on a sample of Laroche’s drugs.  The sequence is wonderfully unhinged, and Streep is hysterical.  The great Chris Cooper plays the bizarre, mysterious, front-teeth-missing Laroche, and he’s wonderful as well.  He’s able to give Laroche a lot of depth, without ever definitely answering for us whether the man is a misunderstood genius or a hick low-life.

There are also a lot of talented actors in small, supporting roles.  It’s a nice touch getting many of the cast of Being John Malkovich (including Catherine Keener, John Cusack, and Mr. Malkovich himself) to appear.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is fun in a tiny role as the make-up girl on Malkovich who starts dating Donald.  Judy Greer is beautiful and hysterical in the small role of a waitress which whom Charlie tries — and pathetically fails — to flirt.  (Re-watching this film today, I think it’s clear where the folks at Arrested Development got the idea for Ms. Greer’s character Kitty’s chest-baring proclivities.)  Ron Livingston is jovially smarmy as Charlie’s agent, and I totally loved Brian Cox’s scene-chewing role as writing seminar teacher Robert McKee (a real person, by the way).

All of this lunacy is held together with great confidence and grace by director Spike Jonze.  Adaptation is a film whose meta structure could have easily made it a distant piece of irony more than an engaging movie, but Mr. Jonze knows how to keep things moving and how to keep all of the insanity somewhat grounded by maintaining his focus on the very human Charlie.  Adaptation is a masterpiece, and I’m not even sure it’s Mr. Jonze’s best picture!  Check it out, if you’ve never seen it.

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