Like Being John Malkovich, describing Adaptation is inviting a dubious reaction.
In short it tells the tale of a man trying to tell a tale of a woman trying to tell a tale of a man who likes flowers, all while his identical in appearance twin seeks to inadvertently despoil his efforts…
Got that? Me neither.
In the ‘outer story’ Nicolas Cage plays both real scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald. Charlie is insecure and doubting of his own ability, while Donald is blissfully ignorant and decides to write a hit screenplay of his own. More worryingly for Charlie is how easy Donald makes it look.
Meanwhile Charlie is tasked with bringing a fresh eye to a novel written by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) about an eccentric poacher of rare flowers named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). The book is entitled The Orchid Thief, and with the news that it is to be made a feature film, Charlie is seen to be the man to impose his own unique spin on the project.
While Charlie strives to find an angle on the story, Donald charges into his own work, simultaneously frustrating and bemusing Charlie with his description of cliches and obvious events. As Donald gains confidence, he seems to extract it in equal measure from an increasingly desperate Charlie.
Meanwhile we learn the story of Susan and John through Susan’s eyes, from there original meeting organised by Susan’s magazine to enable her to write a story, through to Susan’s growing fascination with John and his ability and willingness to throw himself headlong into his interests. She finds John’s passion and knowledge intriguing when juxtaposed vs his occasional bluster and pretentiousness. He is abrasive and self confident despite his missing front teeth and a home lived in apparent squalor, and in return John seems only interested in himself, or at best what Susan thinks of him.
The inner and outer stories remain mostly separated, although they are edited cleverly to appear interwoven. Charlie’s early sequences also cleverly integrate ‘behind the scenes’ footage of Being John Malkovich, which is unexpected and frankly ingenious. So is the film, though perhaps not to the level of Being John Malkovich, this is hardly because they are playing it safe here.
Nicolas Cage is great as both Kaufmans (maybe the last time anyone will use ‘Nicolas Cage’ and ‘Great’ in a sentence without the presence of ‘disappointment’), in the role that best embodies his own battle between creativity and commercialism (a battle lost on both fronts in the last several years). Streep is of course exceptional as the wide eyed Susan taken in by John’s unabashed love and fascination for all things John. And it is Chris Cooper who steals the film a Laroche, a genuinely original character worthy of such fascination, both his, Susan’s and ours. His is an amazingly well drawn character, and a brilliant performance.
While there is something for everyone in Adaptation, there probably isn’t enough of it to go around. There are a few laughs, there is some action, some romance and more than anything some audacious and bold filmmaking decisions that make this film unlike almost all others. The issue ultimately though is that the film folds in upon itself and grows a little too complicated for its own boots.
It remains easy to be astonished by and to admire, but like Laroche it is perhaps a little too willing to be loved by itself than by others.
Final Rating 8 / 10. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze… please keep surprising us with your creative lunacy…