I don’t understand why director Spike Jonze doesn’t make more feature length films. Shorts, videos, and documentaries are all he has really produced since making the brilliant Adaptation. (2002) and almost brilliant Being John Malkovich (1999). Why won’t Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald write truly original screenplays for Jonze anymore? It boggles the mind…
Anyway, I guess it’s obvious that I adore both Jonze and Kaufman, as well as their brainchild, Adaptation. Nicolas Cage plays twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman—that’s right this is a semi-autobiographical film about Kaufman’s struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief. The premise is that after writing the screenplay for Being John Malkovich, Kaufman is given the assignment of adapting Orlean’s book, but due to his insecurities and writer’s block Kaufman struggles with the project. It doesn’t help that his twin brother Donald is around to annoy him, either. And, really, how do you write a script about orchids?
The only truly autobiographical element of Adaptation. is Kaufman’s writer’s block while adapting The Orchid Thief. The twin brother, a romance between Laroche (Chris Cooper) and Orlean, and one of the strangest drug addictions I have ever seen, are all fictional. As I write this, I wonder if I am making the film seem confusing or convoluted in some way, and, perhaps I am, but it isn’t. Without a doubt, it is one of best written movies I have ever seen—and the performances are also stellar. Which, of course, extends my disbelief as to why Jonze and Kaufman don’t make more films together.
Overall, Adaptation. was nominated for four Academy Awards. And, just like Being John Malkovich got short shrift by the Academy regarding a Best Picture nod, so did Adaptation. Freaking Chicago (2002) won Best Picture that year! My God, all four of the other films nominated (Gangs of New York, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Hours, and The Pianist) were better than Chicago—oh, I’m getting off track here--suffice to say, if your three principal leads get nominated, as well as your screenwriter and his fictional brother, surely you might get a Best Picture look—especially when you were a far superior film to the actual winner! This rant is now over…
Cage, Streep, and Cooper all earned acting nominations. Cooper won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his quirky portrayal of a delusional, but highly intelligent orchid thief who is haunted by the events of his past. His interactions with Streep’s New York intellectual/journalist, Susan Orlean, are priceless. They make an extremely odd couple, but their mutual loneliness and sadness draw them to one another. I particularly found watching Streep get hooked on snorting ghost orchid up her nose to feel happy oddly fascinating. I’ve seen Streep do some pretty screwed up things in movies—giving kids away to Nazis and Dustin Hoffman and dancing around and singing while wearing overalls—but snorting green flower residue and deciding to kill someone to keep this a secret just aren’t character traits that one would envision being in her wheelhouse.
And, as it is always difficult to play twins—just ask Bette Davis—I believe Nicolas Cage deserves a lot of credit, too. Sure, at first it’s disconcerting to see him talking to himself—I mean his twin—but once you adjust it is easy to determine when he is playing either Charlie or Donald. It helps that each brother had love interests played by two very gifted actresses--Cara Seymour and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention one of the smartest and unique things about Adaptation.—part of the movie takes place on the set of Being John Malkovich. There are cameos by John Cusack, Catherine Keener, and, of course, John Malkovich. While most of Adaptation. is fictional, this small element adds a touch of authenticity to the Charlie Kaufman character.
Overall, I love Adaptation. It is probably in my top 10 of the best films of the last twenty years. Graced by a highly imaginative script and standout performances from every last cast member, Adaptation. is one of those films that I never get tired of watching. Ah, if only Jonze and Kaufman would make more movies like it—preferably together.