Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2002)

2. Adaptation.

Describing anything as the most original something in however many years is a loaded statement. Because, really, who decides such things? Yet “Being John Malkovich” was surely a candidate for most original something in however many years when it came out. That must’ve been a hard act to follow. That successor was an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” a non-fiction book Charlie Kaufman had been hired to adapt in 1997. The project mutated into something very different as he wrote it though. It’s hard not to imagine Jonze being attracted to the script, wanting to re-team with his “Being John Malkovich” scribe on a project that pushed into meta territory in a challenging, funny way.

Because “Adaptation” isn’t really about telling the story of “The Orchid Thief,” a tale of a rogue botanist hunting a rare orchid in Floridan swampland. Instead, it’s about Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – fat, balding, greatly lacking confidence and social skills – attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s book. His struggles with his self-doubt, trying to find a way to tell a story about flowers without betraying the book’s spirit. At the same time, Charlie’s far more confident twin brother Donald also decides to pursue screenwriting. When Donald’s high-concept thriller script receives studio attention, Charlie has a crisis. He decides to collaborate with his brother on adapting Orlean’s story. This also means confronting Susan, who Charlie has fallen in love with.

In concept, “Adaptation” sounds like the most narcissistic, self-indulgent bullshit imaginable. A movie about screenwriting, in which the real screenwriter is the main character? That’s some Guy in M.F.A. nonsense right there. Or, at least, it would’ve been from anyone other than Charlie Kaufman. “Adaptation” is about exactly that, the struggles of turning one person’s work of art into another work of art. Kaufman, however, casts his net even wider. “Adaptation” is also about evolution, of something changing form. Animals changing to survive, a book becoming a movie, people changing. This mostly emerges through the fictional Kaufman’s struggles to do something new, to change how he sees screenwriting and movie making.

You know, maybe I’m giving Kaufman too much credit. “Adaptation” probably wouldn’t have worked without Nicholas Cage either. Years before he became a walking internet meme, Cage was an occasionally great actor. “Adaptation” sees the actor casting aside his action hero theatrics and returning to his twitchier, earlier days. Cage’s Kaufman is a ball of neurosis. “Adaptation’s” first scene showcases Kaufman’s neurotic faults, attempting to build himself up only to tear himself down again. His mind is frantic and unfocused, terrified of appearing badly and barely able to function. Cage successfully directs his trademark manic energy inward, creating an image of Charlie Kaufman as someone practically torn apart by the war in his head.

It might not seem like the kind of performance you’d expect from the star of “Con Air” and “Ghost Rider.” Then again, “Adaptation’s” central gimmick allows Cage to show off too. He also plays Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald. Donald is the inverse of Charlie. Where Charlie is anxious, Donald is overly confident. While Charlie struggles to impress women, Donald easily talks to girls. Charlie is eager to create a new kind of screenplay. Donald takes a screenwriting course and happily learns the standard rubric to Hollywood screenwriting. Despite the characters looking the same, Cage easily makes Donald a distinct character. His body language, spoken words, and personality creates two separate, compelling characters.

“Being John Malkovich – which “Adaptation” partially takes place during the filming of – gently ribbed Hollywood culture. “Adaptation” turns away from the egos of actors and focuses on the triteness of hacky screenwriting. Donald’s hit script is “The Three,” a cop-chases-serial-killer thriller. The script has the bonus of a totally asinine twist, its hero, villain, and damsel all being revealed to be the same person. It’s naturally well received by talent scouts. Yet “The Three” also reflects on “Adaptation.” When Donald is describing a story about one person with multiple personality, it’s during a conversation with his brother. Donald is, of course, totally fictional. Meaning, when writing that scene, Kaufman was having a conversation of sorts with himself. That same conversation features Charlie asking his brother how he’ll pull off the story’s logistic, a question that writer of “Adaptation” also surely asked himself.

If Jonze and Kaufman happily sacrificed John Malkovich’s ego in their last film, “Adaptation” proves it was nothing personal. Kaufman does it to himself here. He writes himself as pathetic, a word he uses to describe himself repeatedly. The fictional Kaufman is fatter and balder than the real deal. The real Kaufman has a wife and daughter. The fictional Kaufman is too afraid to even talk to a woman. “Adaptation” roasts its writer the hardest by repeatedly depicting Charlie’s masturbatory habits. He builds erotic fantasies off the smallest interactions. By the time he’s jerking off to Susan Orlean’s jacket photo, the character seems to be bottoming out. Yet this reflects on the struggles of the creative minds. In order to complete any project, a writer has to fall in love with his story. “Adaptation” literalizes this choice.

“Adaptation” was going to receive a lot of attention, as the highly anticipated follow-up to a well received movie. It was also going to get a lot of attention because it co-stars Meryl Streep, that beloved mainstay of award season. I’ve said some not-so-nice things about Streep before, as I’m constantly baffled and exhausted by the Academy’s undying love for her. Yet I’ll admit she’s really good in “Adaptation.” Early on, a character says Orlean projects sadness. So she does, as Streep hides an inner turmoil behind a smiling face. Streep sacrifices a bit of ego too, as (the fictional) Orlean’s quest to be passionate about something leads her down some less than dignified paths.

Streep, naturally, was nominated for an Oscar for “Adaptation.” So was Nic Cage and Kaufman’s script. Chris Cooper, however, was the films only nominee to win. Cooper plays John Laroche, the titular orchid thief. It’s a flashy part, on the surface. Laroche is repeatedly described as a colorful character, a man with very Floridian dentistry and a ranting personality. Cooper happily hams it up during these sequences, creating a memorably colorful character. Yet the scenes exploring Laroche’s background, especially his loss, realize the power of Cooper’s performance, showing a man capable of great passion and insight despite what he’s been through. The supporting cast also features a great appearance from Brian Cox as notorious screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

I’ve talked a lot about Charlie Kaufman in this review, which is unavoidable given “Adaptation’s” subject. What about the director? Donald Kaufman and Robert McKee both make references to crossing genres, blending different tones of story into one. Spike Jonze’s direction accomplishes this visually. “Adaptation’s” visual design leaps from frantic to still. Long montages, showing the history of life on Earth, contrast with shots of Kaufman sitting at his computer. Kaufman’s erotic fantasies are brightly lit, while his home life is dreary and dark. His frantic creative process is displayed in quickly assembled scenes, cutting back and forth between people and places. Historical sequences, about Darwin and orchid thieves throughout history, are brought to life with accurate details. In other words, Jonze is perfectly on the script’s level.

Like “Being John Malkovich,” describing “Adaptation” as a comedy is tricky. The laughs are often tinged with a deeply melancholy side, while the film veers closer to thriller as it nears its conclusion. Yet “Adaptation” is extremely funny at times. Charlie’s blunt dismissals of Donald’s hacky story antics always lead to a clueless response from the brother. The peak of Donald’s odd hilarity is when he describes a chase scene in “The Three,” a battle between technology and… Horse. Other, small lines become laughers. Such as Laroche’s excitement upon meeting Kaufman at the end or an agent bragging about his sexual conquest for no reason.

The narrative switcharoo “Adaptation” performs in its last act is well known. Early on, Charlie dismisses Donald’s storytelling, with its emphasis on car crashes, drugs, sex, violence, and characters learning important life lessons. He hopes to avoid these things. After asking Donald to collaborate with him on the film’s script – the script of the film you’re watching – “Adaptation” immediately begins to feature these things. Some dismiss this turn as being too clever, the movie becoming the ouroboros it namedropped earlier. And maybe it is a meta bridge too far. But I fucking love it. It rewards the viewer for paying attention earlier in the film, bringing events full circle, and certainly leads to a highly memorable conclusion.

Taking its metaficitonal tight-rope walk all the way, “Adaptation” was not credited simply to Charlie Kaufman. Donald Kaufman is listed as co-writer. The film is dedicated to his memory and concludes with a quote from his script, “The Three.” (Amusingly, Donald’s “The Three” would practically become a real movie, with shoddy pseudo-Christian thriller “Th3ee.”) Jonze and Kaufman’s mastery of tone, along with the phenomenal cast, makes every tricky move “Adaptation” makes land successfully. It’s brilliantly provides insight into the creative process while commenting on screenwriting conventions, all while being consistently hilarious and moving. [Grade: A]

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