Adaptation (2002) Movie Review

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is a trip. Ever since he burst onto the scene with the kooky “Being John Malkovich”, the screenwriter could get a grocery list made into a movie. The main reason for his popularity with film critics is obvious: they like his screenplay’s unpredictability. Actually, the only thing you can predict about a Kaufman screenplay is that you won’t be able to predict it. His screenplays, like his films, always seem to represent a stream of consciousness rather than a structured narrative.

“Adaptation” is about a writer name Charlie Kaufman who has been assigned the task of adapting a book called “The Orchid Thief” into a movie. The film “Adaptation” is written by Donald and Charlie Kaufman, and Movie Kaufman is played by Nicholas Cage, who does double duty as Movie Kaufman’s twin brother, Movie Donald. The film follows Movie Kaufman’s struggles to adapt the book while at the same time flashing back to follow the book’s writer, Susan Orlean, as she does the original research for her book. Movie Susan is played by Meryl Streep, and John Laroche, the subject of Susan’s book, is played by Chris Cooper.

For those who are still confuse, let’s go over this again. The film is written by Charlie Kaufman, who has written himself into the movie as himself. The main plot of the book if Kaufman trying to find the right voice with which to write the movie. But instead of adapting Susan Orlean’s book, Kaufman has elected to write about Susan and her relationship with herself, her husband, her life, and with Laroche. You see, the movie isn’t actually about Laroche; it’s about Susan and Laroche.

The thing you should know is this: Kaufman isn’t your Average Hollywood Screenwriter. Anyone who has seen “Being John Malkovich” or “Human Nature” knows that the guy doesn’t just stray off the Path of Screenwriting Rules, he avoids it entirely. What passes for structure in “Adaptation” are different scenes and sequences loosely revolving around Kaufman’s struggles with his craft, his industry, and his own shortcomings and perceived insecurities. The film focuses more on Movie Kaufman than it does “The Orchid Thief,” the book that the movie is supposed to have been “based on.”

“Adaptation”, like all Kaufman movies, eventually strays into absurd territory toward the end. The movie’s final 30 minutes, when Movie Kaufman flies to New York to meet Movie Susan, is completely fictional and not “based on” anything, Susan Orlean’s book or otherwise. It’s simply Kaufman’s way of ending a movie he wasn’t sure he wanted to write (or could write) in the first place. (To be honest, I’m curious to know how the real Susan and Laroche responded to the Third Act. It’s quite stunning, in a can-you-belief-Kaufman-had-the-balls-to-write-that kind of way.)

The groups of people who will love “Adaptation” are screenwriters, movie people, and those well versed in all things filmmaking. The movie pokes fun of everything Hollywood is about, as well as every single rule that defines “good screenwriting.” Brian Cox, as a vulgar and arrogant screenwriting guru name McKee, brings the house down with a boisterous presence. The thing McKee and all screenwriting teachers/lecturers/writers preach over and over is exactly the thing Real Life Kaufman doesn’t follow. It’s not hard to imagine that the Hollywood-inspired scenes in “Adaptation” is Real Life Kaufman’s wink to “those in the know” that he knows he’s not “the norm”.

That isn’t to say “Adaptation” can’t be enjoyed by Joe Blow Moviegoer. The film is quirky and funny, and as previously mentioned, it’s quite hard to predict. It tends to meander, but that’s only because there is no set structure to the film’s narrative. The movie moves when it wants to move, and bogs down when it runs out of steam. This is not a life-changing movie, and like the Kaufman films I’ve seen so far, I find “Adaptation” to be rather unimportant to life in general and perhaps a little too “tricky” for its own good.

For those wondering, despite being credited as co-writer, there is no such person as “Donald Kaufman.” The character is just that — a character within the movie, and the addition of a “Donald Kaufman” in the credit listing is just another gag by director Spike Jonze and crew. For reference, consider that Kaufman and Jonze’s last movie together, “Being John Malkovich”, starred the real-life John Malkovich as himself in a movie about him.

Get it?

Spike Jonze (director) / Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
CAST: Nicolas Cage …. Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman
Meryl Streep …. Susan Orlean
Chris Cooper …. John Laroche
Tilda Swinton …. Valerie

Buy Adaptation on DVD