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Movie reviews and reports. Whenever I finally see them.

Adaptation: What the?

Minivan Dad

Okay, I never claimed these would be timely reviews!  To prove it, I'm writing about Spike Jonze's Adaptation, which was released in 2002. It's been a little over a week since I watched it, and I still have no idea what the hell actually happened. I mean that in the best possible way. I loved every minute of it.

A plot summary is kind of pointless. This is a story about a screenwriter writing a screenplay about a book that can't be adapted into a film. It's a film about a book within a film within a film within a screenplay within a screenplay. For all I know it might actually be none of the above, and might only be a writer's daydream about all of it.

The characters that actually exist are Susan Orlean, who wrote The Orchid Thief, a book about a real orchid poacher in Florida named John Laroche, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Orlean, Laroche, and Kaufman. To my watching, everyone else is up for debate. 

Orlean, whose book arose from an article she wrote for The New Yorker magazine, is played brilliantly by Meryl Streep as a New Yorker kind of New Yorker, looking for some kind of passion in her intellectually detached life. This was 12 years ago. Streep plays Susan with a kind of mature, slightly repressed hotness that isn't so much surprising as it is really cool. Unexpectedly, her Susan finds some missing passion stirring within her as she sits in the filthy van of Chris Cooper's Laroche, who is probably the only human in her orbit that has ever called her "Suzy-Q." This is almost a Florida trash version of Crocodile Dundee, except for the part where Laroche is, well, insane. Susan seems bemused by Laroche at first. Soon, she is attracted to his psychiatrically unbalanced obsession, which she mistakes for true intellectual passion.

Cooper won his Academy Award for this role, and he's mesmerizing. He's part con man, part genius, part victim, all intensity. He describes himself in court as "pretty much the smartest guy I know." In a sense he is like Susan, who has moved from story to story, except his experiences have been first hand, involving a string of personal and professional pursuits and tragedies, ending in horticulture and his current orchid obsession. Susan can't understand how he can be fully engaged and completely obsessed with something and then drop it entirely without remorse or retroactive longing. I'm guessing that Cooper won his Oscar on the basis of his answer, drawled through his missing front teeth.

Look, I'll tell you a story, all right? I once fell deeply, you know, profoundly in love with tropical fish. Had 60 goddamn fish tanks in my house. I skin dived to find just the right ones. Anisotremus virginicus, Holdacanthus ciliaris, Chaetodon capistratus. You name it. Then one day I say, "f--- fish". I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again. That's how much "f--- fish". 

"Profoundly in love with tropical fish." Awesome. Then "f--- fish." No real explanation. Just "f--- fish." Seriously, I would own this movie just to be able to watch this scene on a continuous loop whenever I want. (Yes, I know YouTube exists, I'm not that old.) I was already enjoying the film, but I was totally hooked (sorry) after "I renounce fish."

I've already described a pretty interesting film, right? Yeah, well, that's about half of it. Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, the real life screenwriter of this film. Cage's Charlie is the kind of role that would favor Paul Giamatti if this was a biopic. With Cage, though, the threat of physically manifested violent psychosis is always just behind the facade. 

The film actually opens with a behind-the-scenes clip from his previous Being John Malkovich, which I will be watching soon for sure. Cage plays Charlie as an ineffectual, independent-minded creative artist with writer's block. We follow him from an initial meeting with Tilda Swinton's studio executive Val, which may or may not have actually occurred, when he is given the job to write the screenplay for Ms Orlean's book. He is full of purist artistic notions of what he doesn't want the book to become. He doesn't want a sappy rom-com or melodrama. He doesn't want cheap action thrills. He wants to be true to the book, except the book has no defined workable narrative. All of which means he has the job, but he has no clue what he's going to do with it.

So, we get to spend a lot of time inside Charlie's head. Which is not a pretty place. He has a twin brother, Donald, also played by Cage, who lives in his apartment. Possibly. In real life, he doesn't seem to exist. In film life, I'm not really so sure he does either. Cage's Donald plays as the anti-Charlie. Same unlovable physical characteristics, half the intellect, sensationalist imagination, complete disregard for personal boundaries, yet he is bagging nymphomaniac young Hollywood babes and playing Boggle with Catherine Keener. Charlie can't even bring himself to act on his crush with his friend Amelia, who does everything short of undressing and straddling him.

Donald either does, or does not, become a temporarily successful screenwriter himself, after attending a formulaic seminar and devising a thriller, The 3, in which the victim, suspect, and investigator are all the same delusional person. Huh. Clue? Or not? No idea.

Donald's rapid success on top of Charlie's writer's block drives Charlie further into a self-loathing shell. It is only his acceptance of Donald, and an incredible turn of events, that save him. Donald and Charlie rarely coexist outside of each other's sphere, so I'm suspicious. Is Donald Charlie's psychologically constructed mechanism for coping with the regression of the script once Charlie realizes that there is no workable story to tell? Is Donald a character in the script that Charlie will write? Is Donald the inner demon that Charlie must defeat in order to actually write the script that he wants, without the formulas? And is that the script that Charlie will actually be writing when he gets out of his car, after the end of the film? 

This is a film that I could not have appreciated without some movie-watching mileage under my belt. Those who prefer linear storytelling will undoubtedly be baffled. Those who don't care for a thorough depiction of painful male self-loathing might not enjoy Adaptation. Those who want to see an alligator attack in the Fakahatchee Strand? Surprisingly, they're in luck. Maybe. Like I said at the beginning, I have no clue what really happened in these two hours. I'm game for pretty much anything at this point, though, and I particularly enjoyed a film that made me continually question what I was watching, what it meant, and how close to home it really hit.