Friday, October 15, 2010

Adaptation. (2002)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman
Photography: Lance Acord
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Judy Greer, Cara Seymour, Jay Tavare, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich

Note that "Donald Kaufman" listed above as co-writer should rightly appear with the scare quotes as there is no such person and never has been. Just another trick up the lengthy and tortuous sleeves of the wily screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose third or fourth feature is notionally based on a pop science book by Susan Orlean, an expanded "New Yorker" article and popular reading club selection, The Orchid Thief, but produces with director Spike Jonze more exactly a movie about the detours that proceed from that notion. As if to demonstrate that their fingers never leave their hands, they take the most auspicious opportunities to telegraph the decision points of their story and what is to come of them. Almost immediately, for example, via the dizzying mouthpiece here, Nicolas Cage, who plays both of the Kaufman twins Charlie and Donald attempting to write the screenplay (or "adapt," as the conceit goes, the Orlean book) and announces that this won't be "an orchid heist movie" or about "changing the orchids into poppies and making it about drug running." "I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases," he goes on, "or characters learning profound life lessons, or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end." And then, at the about the two-thirds point, the frustrated Charlie Kaufman visits Mr. McKee, a well-known Los Angeles script doctor who teaches expensive public seminars on the arts of the screenplay; Charlie detests him and everything he stands for, while Donald adores him and has been finding success with his strategies and urging Charlie to study him. Now Charlie, in a neurotic burst of energy, is driven to consult with him in New York. "The last act makes a film," says the script doctor (nicely played by Brian Cox). "You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end and you've got a hit.... Find an ending. But don't cheat. And don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change and the change must come from them. Do that and you'll be fine." And so we head to the big finish of this very strange collaboration between writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. (Their first, Being John Malkovich, was about as strange.) Does it work? Please define "work" and "does." There's a lot going on—orchids, biology, a "New Yorker" article, a risky movie deal, dull lives of the professionally creative, and the history of evolution on earth—and just as obviously a lot of its antecedents can be found in various Woody Allen movies, where they are generally more charming and amusing. Nicolas Cage, if I need to tell you, makes a particularly repulsive variation—even if he leaves Woody spitting up dust in terms of acting chops. Cage's performance as twins is really quite stunning. And look who else is here: Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, cameos, more. Bravo! To be sure, there's a good many pleasures along the way, with the sneaky-pete detective work and auto accidents and guns and drugs and sex and everything else they managed to get in, and yes, the character arcs too. Is it a little busy? Honey, do you have to ask? I haven't even got to that annoying dot in the title.

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