REVIEW: Obsession Made Even More Lunatic: Jonze and Kaufman's Fearless "Adaptation"
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE: 12.03.02) — I loved Susan Orlean‘s book “The Orchid Thief.” The true-life story of a toothless Floridian whose obsession with orchids drives him to crime and self-destruction, the book screamed out for a cinematic adaptation. Though the book could digress, the plot occasionally lost among musings on beauty or Florida (never at the same time), it couldn’t have been all that difficult to make a great movie from just a third of the oddity captured on Orlean’s pages. With “Adaptation,” the new film from director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, we have a film that uses maybe a tenth of “The Orchid Thief,” while, ostensibly, claiming to be an adaptation. That might at first seem the result of typical Hollywood hubris, but it is clear within the film’s first 10 minutes that “Adaptation” is anything but an insult. The film not only remains true to the spirit of Orlean’s book, it actually manages to add deeper shades to her already rich portrait of lunatic obsession.
Nicolas Cage, coming off his recent “triumphs” in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Windtalkers,” at last returns to his uniquely strange and uncomfortable presence, dormant for too many years. As screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Cage is a man obsessed — not only with his script, but also with his thinning hair, his bulging midsection, and his complete inability to function socially. Hired to adapt Orlean’s book to the screen, Kaufman just can’t manage to get started; to call it writer’s block does not even begin to describe his torment hunched over his typewriter.
Enter Charlie’s twin brother Donald, also nailed perfectly by Cage. Donald is Charlie’s polar opposite — the life of the party, easy going, and lucky with the ladies. To add insult to injury, he has decided to become a screenwriter himself. Donald’s endless ravings about screenwriting mentor Robert McKee (played in a great cameo by Brian Cox), does little to buoy Charlie’s spirits. Finally, in a fit of desperation, Charlie decides to write himself into the script. And there he is.
Running parallel to the brothers Kaufman is Orlean’s own story. Meryl Streep, in a subtle though remarkable performance, plays the New Yorker writer who leaves behind the city for a stay in the swamplands of Florida. There, John Laroche (Chris Cooper) has been arrested for stealing the rare ghost orchid, and though her visit was meant only to produce a feature article, she quickly discovers a much larger story. Laroche, and many like him, are not merely collectors, or enthusiasts, they are completely consumed by orchids. Laroche is a remarkable figure, at once the quintessence of poor white trash, also prone to the moveable feasts of the autodidact. To watch a man missing his front teeth ruminating on beauty is too good for just an article. Orlean is soon hooked.
Orlean is driven by her own inability to understand the passion that drives Laroche. Lost amid the insincere trappings of Upper East Side literati, Orlean’s increasing disinterest in her steely journalist’s gaze becomes impossible to maintain as she fully witnesses Laroche’s obsessive drives. Unable to truly connect with his monomania, Orlean becomes consumed with the man himself, a feeble attempt to break out of her own ironic bemusement at these bizarre conditions. Laroche becomes a kind of backwoods shaman for Orlean, offering her the primal, immediate sensations that she otherwise lacks. Ultimately, of course, it proves her undoing.
The ability of the film to maintain completely disparate tones — from the near slapstick of the Kaufman brothers to the nuanced ennui of Orlean — without rendering either of them hollow is testament to Spike Jonze’s incredible learning curve as a director. Where “Being John Malkovich” could occasionally appear self-indulgent, “Adaptation” shows one masterful touch after another. While Jonze never compromises the humor of Kaufman’s script, he finds a deeper, more resonant nerve in all these stories.
Eventually Kaufman’s script and the film give way to the seemingly inevitable steamroller of Hollywood demands — the chase sequences, the love interests, and the drugs. “Adaptation” doesn’t answer whether this ending marks a failure, a necessity, or both, and it’s shrouded in the irony that has quickly become the trademark of the Jonze/Kaufman team. “Adaptation,” however, is more than the pomo trickery of “Being John Malkovich,” much more. There is a distinct attempt made here to find an emotional depth that doesn’t need to hide itself behind the endless parody of “Malkovich.” There is no salvation in the apparently safe distance from which Kaufman’s script starts. Instead there is a danger, a terror that is absent in so many other attempts to wrench meaning from self-obsession. Adaptation’s meta trappings only underscore the very real drama that plays out in the lives of these characters. What would appear at first a gimmick, becomes instead a gripping context in which to understand passion and obsession. Simply put, “Adaptation” is one of the most fearless, most accomplished films in years.