A truly original motion picture is, like a deep-thinking conservative, a rare find in the world today. Given the sheer, deafening volume of cliché-ridden garbage that seems to flow endlessly from the sewers of Hollywood, it seems almost impossible that a work of daring and mad brilliance could ever be produced in any corner of this proud land. Still, we sit in our rooms, scanning the magazines and newspapers, hoping for that one bright day when our moviegoing experience is transformed; elevated far above the common drivel that passes for art and entertainment. On a frosty night this past December, I had such an experience. Not that what I saw constitutes the greatest movie experience of my short life, nor am I forced to revise my top ten list in the face of its greatness. Yet, I am moved to a giddy delight and can declare that yes, we have a film that avoids all the trappings that sink lesser works – a combination of wit, insight, daring, and talent that adds up to what deserves to be ranked among the most fascinating and debatable films of the year. Directed by Spike Jonze, written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper, Adaptation is nothing less than a meditation on film itself, or the impossibility of artistic risk in the face of compromise and commercialism. And so much more.
To sum it up in the least confusing manner possible, the film concerns a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Cage) who sets about to adapt a book entitled The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. His task is made that much more difficult by his passive nature and a twin brother (also played by Cage, in a distinct and separate role) who is writing his own screenplay. The brother, possessing more confidence and a sense of purpose, cares little for artistic integrity or true inspiration, and seeks only a “successful” screenplay, or at least one that conforms to every self-help guide on the subject. As Charlie labors under great strain and difficulty, his brother whips out page after page of something that can only be described as drivel in its purest form. It is full of serial killers, Sixth Sense-style twists, and numerous chase sequences. It is garbage, of course, but it is a finished work. Charlie, preferring a more intellectual approach and insisting that his “vision” prevail, sinks deeper and deeper into a pit of anxiety and paralysis. As the two rivals compete, we sense that something more sinister is going on: the complete surrender of a gifted writer’s soul and the elevation of mediocrity in its stead.
Still, a plot synopsis would only serve to downplay the anarchic lunacy of the film, for nothing in its 114 minutes can be labeled with absolute clarity or reduced to a tagline. When faced with a screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman, who is writing about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who is himself writing a screenplay with a character named Charlie Kaufman, is there anything that can be said to make sense of it all? Nevertheless, the exploration via meta-meta-fiction of the very nature of reality is no shallow gimmick. This is much more than a freshman film student trying to impress his elders with trickery and pseudo-cleverness. The film, thematically at the very least, transcends such limitations, for the film itself does not disappear with the payoff (a la The Usual Suspects). When the end of the film does arrive (and it does with a jolt since it is so out of step with what has come before), we are at first horrified, but only for an instant. As we think about the implications, we realize that the set up for just such an ending has been established (albeit gradually) throughout the film. In fact, the ending, as other critics have noted, is the only ending that is at all possible. As revolted as we are by the screeching cars, the flash of weapons, and the chase through the Florida swamp, we slap our forehead in recognition. Still, the ending can only be appreciated ironically, for if we “enjoyed” it (in that we leave the film with that good ol’ sense of closure), we are as far from “getting it” as if we were storm out of the theater in a rage. We see that, in all its bitter triumph, the conclusion of Adaptation is a terrific blow against every film that has ever let us down after holding so much promise. A fierce, uncompromising blitz against the “requirements” of the business itself: cuts, re-shoots, audience screenings that force filmmakers back into the editing room, the whole Blockbuster mentality that believes a film is best left to committees, rather than lone wolf artists. Jonze and Kaufman are giving us what we as mindless consumers always insist we must have, and then rubbing our noses in the filth and perversity of our silly demands.
Of course the cleverness of the execution is part of the appeal, but it is important to remember the actors involved. Cage manages to make us forget (almost) about the horrible choices he has made since his dubious Oscar win, Streep demonstrates a gift for comedy while simultaneously showing us longing and sadness, Cooper steals the show as the “orchid thief” of the novel in question (managing to be both trashy and passionate at the same time), and Brian Cox gives us yet another memorable supporting turn (as the speaker who touts screenwriting “rules”). I laughed, my attention never wavered, and I genuinely cared about how it all came out, even though I knew I was being played for a fool. In this case, I enjoyed the ride, fool or not, for I cannot escape my complicity as a member of the viewing audience. What is it that I look for when I go to the movies? Are my expectations and demands as bad as those who seek only a smile and perhaps a few tears of joy? How much originality, ambiguity, and open-endedness will I tolerate before joining the chorus of boos? I would like to think that my mind is eternally open, that I crave substance and challenge even if meaning is not readily apparent, but I am never absolutely certain. How committed am I to the true detours and twisted turns of artistic expression?
Seek out this film. See it despite the pleas of your dippy other half to sit through The Two Towers for the eighth time. See it rather than throwing up your hands and going to Blockbuster for the latest J Lo silliness. See it at all costs. While I might not have all of the particulars down and my mind is still attempting to deal with this puzzle, this is a film that I (and you) will not forget. You might hate it (damn you to hell if that is the case), but it is impossible to remain indifferent. Rarely have I had this much fun thinking about so much that is sad, wrong, and pathetic about our world.