From the director and writer of 1999's Being John Malkovich comes another film that breaks down the walls between fact and fiction. In Adaptation, they take a unique story within a story within a story approach and mix in both real people and imaginary characters. The result is an inventive movie that is ultimately undermined by its own gimmicky mechanics.
Adaptation revolves around twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman (both portrayed by Nicholas Cage), a pair of screenwriters who have different ideas on what makes a good movie script. Donald wants to pen a quintessential sell-out thriller described as "The Silence of the Lambs meets Psycho," while Charlie wants to take the more cerebral route with a simple, unassuming screenplay. To these ends, Charlie thinks he has the ideal vehicle when he is assigned the adaptation of the novel The Orchid Thief, a biographical tale of freewheeling botanist John Laroche (Chris Cooper), researched and written by author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). But a bad case of writer's block stalls Charlie until a sudden brainstorm strikes: to write about his struggle to write the adaptation. From there, a creative explosion takes him in a new, energetic direction.
So, to reiterate: Adaptation is the story of Charlie Kaufman and his writing of a story that incorporates and is based on a story written by Susan Orlean. Like I said, "story within a story within a story." While Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean are real people and The Orchid Thief is a real book (you can check it out here at Amazon), Donald Kaufman is a fictional construct--a Charlie Kaufman alter-ego that has gone wild and plastered itself on the film's credits like a pseudonym come to life. John Malkovich, John Cusack, and Catherine Keener make amusing cameos as themselves to further blur the precarious line between what's real and what's not. (Side question: How exactly does one get Catherine Keener to come over to their house and play Boggle?)
Pressed to come up with a rating for this film, I find that I can't eagerly recommend it--but not for the obvious reason of its elusive structure. In fact, I find Adaptation's multi-layered approach to storytelling to be engaging and creative (although not as groundbreaking as most critics seem to think). What I have issue with is how the movie passes of its weaknesses as artistry in such a generic, time tested fashion.
Adaptation makes use of voice over narrative and has a healthy dose of deus ex machina, but counters these amateurish elements with a character who actively condemns them (Brian Cox). Such preemptive criticism may disarm nay-sayers and make the shortcomings seem intentional, but it doesn't change the fact that the story uses these "sloppy writing" techniques to advance itself--not to truly satirize them. Similarly, the movie's inclusion of the cheesy sensationalism it frowns upon seems more like an attempt at action than parody. If it is the latter, then Adaptation is a better observer of Hollywood cliches than it is a producer--Charlie's comments on Donald's paint-by-numbers screenplay are funny, but the brothers' involvement in their own corny melodrama is just silly.
As for the performances, only Chris Cooper's stands out as worthy of praise. His portrayal of con man Laroche is a great departure--in both look and demeanor--from the roles typically associated with him. Cage handles the dual character thing well enough, but there's nothing here that's particularly pushing the envelope for the intense actor. At best, his characterization of a pathetic Charlie Kaufman will be a modestly interesting footnote in his myriad of cinematic achievements. I can see the caption now: "Having mastered his Elvis impersonation, Nicolas Cage moves on to perfect his Woody Allen in 2002's Adaptation."
Self-awareness may work readily for parodies and campy horror flicks, but in a film like Adaptation, it serves as free license to elevate a mundane slice of life into artistry. This lack of boundaries cranks out a movie that is worth a viewing or two, but I'm not convinced it is entirely deserving of all the critical acclaim it has garnered. When it comes to comparisons with the previous collaboration between Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, it should be clear that Being John Malkovich tops Adaptation's college-writing-class theatrics: the quirky Malkovich is more imaginative, more daring, more entertaining, and considerably more original.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)