Originally Written: January 2003
The year’s wildest ride happens to be low on F/X, but high on invention. Here’s the deal- Charlie Kaufman (writer of “Being John Malkovich” and 2002’s underrated “Human Nature”) is asked by a Hollywood bigwig to adapt a novel called “The Orchid Thief”- about Southern Boy John Laroche, who hunts rare flowers in the Florida swamps- by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean into a screenplay. The problem is, the book’s nonlinear, contemplative tone and style- and the subject matter of flowers- is a tough nut for a screenwriter to crack, and the self-loathing Kaufman- who hopes to stay true to the book without Hollywood gloss- gets a nasty taste of writer’s block. It doesn’t help matters that Charlie’s confident brother Donald is taking up screenwriting after taking a seminar with screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and his first attempt- a serial killer thriller hack job- is bought for a million dollars.
Donald isn’t real; he’s an alter ego upon which Charlie- who is most certainly real (and deserves his second Oscar nomination after “Malkovich” for this dizzying effort)- can vent his frustrations upon while trying to break through the dense story. But the genius of creating Donald wouldn’t be nearly as brilliant were it not for Nicolas Cage, who’s never been riskier or more riveting to watch as both the self-effacing Charlie and hot rod Donald. He won an Oscar- undeservingly I felt- for the terminally dull “Leaving Las Vegas,” and was passed over for the brilliant duality of John Woo’s wicked-cool “Face/Off”; I would hope those facts don’t stop Academy members from honoring him again here. Cage drives the slyly inventive events of “Adaptation” as Kaufman’s dazzling script moves effortlessly from Charlie’s conflicts and Orlean’s interactions with Laroche as director Spike Jonze proves his own Oscar nomination for “Malkovich” was no fluke. It’ll be hard for the Academy to deny him another one. The same can be said about Meryl Streep- cutting loose beautifully as Orlean- and Chris Cooper- making a surprisingly three-dimensional character of Laroche- for the Supporting categories. But like Kaufman’s “Malkovich” and “Human Nature,” don’t dismiss “Adaptation”- also fueled by a brilliant score by Carter Burwell (another “Malkovich” collaborator) that is worthy of the composer’s first Oscar nomination- simply as arty, pretentious goofiness; more than that, it’s a beautifully neurotic meditation on adapting in life, the conflicts of the “serious” artist and “commercial” mind, and the passions that drive us. So see, it’s arty and fun- a rare combination to find. Granted, it’s not as fun or outrageous as “Being John Malkovich,” but the twists and turns- and wildly clever third act- will leave you breathlessly entertained.