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Blocked: Nicolas Cage can't seem to get his screenplay started in 'Adaptation.'

Orchid Grinder

'Adaptation' stars Nicolas Cage--and Nicolas Cage--in a postmodern celebration of writing

By Richard von Busack

"I'M A CHARACTER in it, so I'm going to have the experience of seeing myself portrayed. If they turn my character into a kleptomaniac murderess, I'd probably not be happy. It will be interesting to see what someone else's mind does with that story." So wrote author Susan Orlean (in 1999 in the St. Petersburg Times) about Adaptation, the movie adaptation of her book The Orchid Thief.

She's not turned into a kleptomaniac, anyway. There's a famous quote by the buffed rock star Eddie Van Halen, commenting on critical darling Elvis Costello: "Of course, the critics love Elvis Costello; they all look like him." It's possible that the Van Halen Law has struck again.

The Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman film Adaptation has been highly praised, perhaps because Nicolas Cage is made up to look and act like rather more than a few people practicing the critic's trade. Not just critics, though; Cage exemplifies any writer's anguish and self-loathing. He's neurotic from sunless solitude and self-abuse, a lonely figure never--particularly at 3am--free of an unconquerable fear of failure and the ironically bitter knowledge that other men would kill him for his job.

As the beleaguered writer of Adaptation, Cage is blessedly funny for a change, in the kind of mournful-loser part that made his fame. Playing the real-life Kaufman (who wrote the screenplay for Being John Malkovich), Cage wears a wig that's apparently cut from the hide of the Skin Horse, the Velveteen Rabbit's decaying pal. It's seems to be suede, with a worn patch at the top.

The panic comes out of his pores; he's a sweaty boy. Clad in flannel droop-wear (dressed to depress), he's caught in an elevator outside The New Yorker. When he sees journalist Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), Kaufman utters this marvelous star-struck noise, a sound something between a throat clearing and a bleat.

Screenwriters--"a necessary evil in the film business," as Irving Thalberg said--are axiomatically the lowest hired hands on a film. Adaptation is a portrait of one scriptwriter's crisis. As we join Cage's Kaufman, the screen is black--a dark night of anxiety. He's talking to himself about his own ugliness, sweatiness and ineptness, his certainty that the bump on his leg is cancer. The monologue is comparable to the best self-scarification of Woody Allen.

Cage's character is adapting a nonfiction book for a feature film. It's a book particularly resistant to the usual three-act, boy-meets-girl, plot-arc-driven movie. Charlie complains about this to Valerie, his agent. She's played by a typically no-nonsense Tilda Swinton, who happens to look much more like the real Orlean than Streep does.

The writer begs to be allowed to do something really different: "a movie about flowers." What Charlie dreads is a typically crappy based-on-the-title-of-the-book film adaptation.

The Orchid Thief is a bestselling collection of essays concerning the history and biology of these endangered plants. Like most of the book's critics, Kaufman is most struck by Orlean's interviews with John Laroche (played in the movie by perennial John Sayles star Chris Cooper), a wily but toothless autodidact who poaches orchids from state preserves in Florida. Kaufman imagines the contrast between Orlean and Laroche as the heart of his script.

While Kaufman wrestles with the adaptation, he romantically (and sexually) obsesses on Orlean's dust-jacket picture. Perhaps the scene where Kaufman masturbates over the photo is autobiographical; it is a striking portrait, as reviewers have noted.

And while he writes, Kaufman is pestered by his identical twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage; no, Donald doesn't exist in real life). Donald is a sponger who has delusions of getting into screenwriting. Donald is a nerd too, but another kind of Cage nerd, a raucous glad-hander.

Writing about any Kaufman script is a little like trying to count the cats on the Dubonnet label, but the brother-vs.-brother subplot functions as a parody of Sam Shepard's True West. (Incidentally, the Donald Kaufman part derives from the character in that play that was John Malkovich's breakthrough role onstage.)

Earnest Charlie enjoys less success than Donald, who has a studio interested in his script, which is a doozy, the world's most clichéd serial-killer movie. In the meantime, Donald also attends classes by a screenwriting guru, Robert McKee (Brian Cox, playing another real-life writer). As Donald flourishes, Charlie slogs through the marsh that is his script.

Adaptation's warmth comes out when the two brothers join forces. Under Donald's pressure, the twins act like Frank and Joe Hardy, pulling a reconnaissance on Orlean. They discover she has a cold, bloodless marriage (her husband is played by Curtis Hanson, who directed 8 Mile). Through their snooping, the Kaufmans also discover that Orlean elided the most sensational parts of her story: a torrid yet tender affair with Laroche and involvement in the drug trade.

After two decades of watching Streep, it's clear she's primarily a stage performer who brings a theatrical quality to all of her movies. Streep's precision and hauteur have led people to say, "I like Meryl Streep" as if they were saying, "I like the Washington Monument." As she's aged, the marble's turned into flesh. She has never really been really lovable onscreen until right now. Under the influence of forbidden botanicals, she becomes a stoned orchid child, mulling over her toes, studying the pretty insects. "I wish I were an ant--they're so shiny," she coos. "You're shinier than any ant, darling," Laroche replies.

Everyone knows how good Cox is, and the lectures by McKee galvanize Adaptation. You can only wish you had teachers that plainspoken--and wish harder for the strength to defy them, as they sometimes have to be defied. The film's turning point comes when McKee gives Charlie the grit to finish his job. McKee stresses conflict, crisis, the little person who wants to know why his time's being wasted in a theater.

Just as surely as the two battlers atop the boxcar in Sullivan's Travels represented "Labor" and "Capital," the Kaufman twins represent "Art" and "Commerce." The film's so clever that the sad triumph of commerce over art goes almost unnoticed. Director Jonze's use of ready-made high school science-instruction films parallels Charlie's struggle with story of evolution.

Charlie has asides in the film, noting how insects adapt themselves to pollinate flowers. Adaptation suggests that the screenwriter's career is a process of evolution. Starting in primitive self-obsession, the scriptwriter is born. Like a chick pecking its way out of an egg, the writer breaks out of the round of his skull. In this, he is also like the moths who adapt, over centuries, to the needs of a particular pollen-bearing orchid. In Adaptation, the insectlike screenwriter finds the treasure inside the flower of a book and spreads it to the rest of the world. Well, this florid metaphor only really works if you believe that submitting to the demands of the marketplace is absolutely what nature intends us to do.

The real Kaufman co-credits the script of Adaptation to his imaginary brother, the action-movie buff. It certainly looks as if Donald wrote the ending. What kind of inspiration was it to finish off Adaptation as a Joe Don Baker swamp adventure? While the guns-and-gators climax wraps up Adaptation fast, it goes against what McKee teaches: that an audience will forgive anything if they get a good smashing ending, and to never, never cheat. Adaptation's finish isn't smashing, and it is a cheat. An open ending would have better served the movie. What we get looks too much like the last resort of a trapped hack.

Adaptation (R; 114 min.), directed by Spike Jonze, written by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book by Susan Orlean, photographed by Lance Acord and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, plays at selected theaters.

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From the December 26, 2002-January 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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