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Adaptation (December 29/02)

Okay, I'll admit it - I didn't get Adaptation. Clearly writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze were going for some kind of post-modern decronstruction of contemporary cinema, but it just flew right over my head. This leaves me with one concern: Was it entertaining? Sort of.

Nicolas Cage assumes two roles, Charlie Kaufman and his earnest brother Donald. Charlie's been assigned the task of adapting a book about flowers called The Orchid Thief into a movie, a job that he's having very little luck with. It's not until he decides to insert himself into the screenplay - frustration and all - that he finally gets rolling. Meanwhile, in a subplot that mostly occurs three years earlier, Susan Orlean - a writer for The New Yorker - is working on an article detailing the work of a man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Laroche is an environmentalist who believes that mankind has done more harm than good to the natural elements of our world, and agrees to be interviewed by Orlean. The article becomes a novel, and Orlean and Laroche find themselves drawn together - even though they live in separate States.

Adaptation marks Jonze's first film since Being John Malkovich, a film that was almost universally praised but held little appeal for me. The biggest problems with that movie were the incredibly stupid storyline and the drab look that Jonze and his cinematographer employed. Adaptation, at least, manages to remain somewhat entertaining throughout, which Being John Malkovich couldn't even do. But the film still suffers from a terminal case of innovation; Kaufman's clearly trying really, really hard to do something different here, but his original ideas come at the expense of the story. Add to that Jonze's overly-enthusiastic style of direction, and you've got a film that's trying way too hard to be unique.

And though Kaufman (the character, not the screenwriter) mentions that he doesn't want to turn his adaptation into a Hollywood thing (with car chases, happy endings, etc), the film does exactly that. By the time the third act rolls around, the movie's turned into a bizarre hybrid of romance and action, with the Kaufman twins being chased by Laroche and Orlean - who want them dead because they've stumbled upon their cache of illegal flowers. Presumably, all this stuff has something to do with variety of cliches the Donald character has inserted into the screenplay he's writing (called The Three, it's an amalgam of virtually every thriller churned out by Hollywood) - a screenplay embraced by everyone except Charlie, who sees it for what it is. So, are we to assume that Adaptation has actually morphed into The Three? Most likely, because it seems curious that Kaufman would allow the story to become so predictable and silly (a character is killed by a crocodile, for crying out loud!)

But, at the very least, Adaptation does contain one of Cage's best performances. Playing twins is a dicey proposition, as he has to ensure that they're different enough for the audience to discern which is which. Cage succeeds completely at this; Charlie and Donald are plausibly distinct, even though they look identical. And now that computer technology is at the point where one actor can play two people in the same scene, sequences featuring the two Cage characters are seamless. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, actors who no doubt loved Being John Malkovich and wanted to work with Jonze. Cooper, in particular, is a standout as Laroche. Missing his front teeth, Cooper takes what could've been a standard hick-with-wild-ideas character and makes it distinctive. Of course, Streep delivers another fine performance, though she is occasionally overshadowed by Cage and Cooper - both of whom are saddled with flashier roles.

Adaptation is a slight improvement over Being John Malkovich, but the combination of Kaufman's script (which puts cleverness at the expense of everything else) and Jonze's occasional over-the-top directorial flourishes (are that many flashbacks really necessary?) prevent the movie from becoming anything more than a big-budget film experiment.

out of

© David Nusair