Adaption. (Spike Jonze, 2002) – convolution masked as clever self-reference.

Jonze and Kaufman’s second collaboration after the well-received Being John Malkovich (1999), the duo take another dive into the mind of real person in Adaption.. This time, the focus is on the film’s own writer Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage, and his attempt to adapt a non-fiction book about orchids into a successful screenplay. Adaption. flits between Cage’s voiceover-laden misery and self-deprecating scenes of frustration as he tries to write the script; his cheerier brother Donald (also played by Cage but non-existent in Charlie’s real life) whomst decides that he, too, can write a perfect thriller intended for the big screen; and the author of the book Kaufman is adapting, Susan Orlean of The Orchid Thief. The real Orlean clearly let Kaufman and Jonze run wild with their interpretation of how the contents of her book were researched and achieved, much like how the Cage-Kaufman fails to translate the book into an interesting screenplay and his mind wanders. Orlean (Meryl Streep), bored of her marriage, falls for the star of her written work John Laroche (Chris Cooper).

The film is as convoluted as the idea behind it, although it is intriguing how Kaufman (real) decided to adapt an unadaptable book into a film by writing about his struggles with the aforementioned adapting. There is no clear understanding of what actually happened in real life and what did not, but the point was clearly not to tell an accurate description. If that were the case, then the main character’s fears would come true; the plot would be boring. Scenes of Cage’s writing failure contrasting against his made-up brother’s success at creating a cookie-cutter thriller that the industry (‘don’t use the word industry!’ groans Kaufman) loves immediately. Kaufman’s feelings of inadequacy are palpable, and the film feels almost ‘free’  due to his chosen route to express said feelings, but that unfortunately doesn’t stop some of the more tripe areas of the film, mostly found in Streep’s scenes.

Nicolas Cage as both Donald (L) and Charlie (R).

Streep is objectively a good actor, and that is not up for dispute in Adaption., but her character felt unfulfilling to watch. There wasn’t much to gain when she was on screen, and her storyline felt forced – obviously, this is because it was, as the point of the film is Kaufman’s attempt to adapt her story. However, just because Kaufman (real)’s concept is interesting, doesn’t necessarily mean its translation is as well. The process of writing that Cage-Kaufman goes through felt more absorbable and engaging than Orlean’s affair with the unrecognisable Cooper, whose eccentric character felt slightly underused as  his enigmatic scenes were interspersed with multiple shots of Cage looking miserable and distressed in front of a typewriter. If this were a more ‘normal’ or linear film I would complain about how the narrative was jumpy and didn’t know where it wanted to settle down, but the fact is that this film was about how the writer struggled to settle the story down on solid ground. Again, though, you can have an interesting concept and still make an underwhelming delivery.

Many reviewers praise this film for its clever meta-ness, for its acting, for its intricate story that matches that of the fantasy-reality mash-up that was Being John Malkovich, but the flatness found in Adaption. is not to be found in its director’s 1999 work. There was too much going on in this film, whilst leaving you with the feeling that there isn’t actually enough going on. The focus is on the wrong things, the wrong characters have too much screen time, and the fact is that flowers are boring if you make them boring.

I wanted to like this film, and I genuinely did at first, but it began to drag fairly quickly. Cage’s performance was the saving grace, however, as he thrives as both Charlie and Donald. He fully embodies each character to the point where they could be wearing the exact same clothes and yet you could easily distinguish who is who. His loyalty to each character role he is given works well in this film, as Charlie’s obsession with creating the perfect book-to-screenplay adaption matches Cage’s energy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s