The film opens with a black screen. Basic white font credits roll at the bottom, one name at a time. A voice begins to speak nervous, quick, self-deprecating words. The screen is still blank, except for the names passing by, the only visual offered: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, etc. The speaker continues to ramble on in spastic, random sentences; he complains about how fat, bald and repulsive he must be. He waxes on pathetically. The movie has been playing for a total of 10 minutes without so much as a moving picture, and already the audience is laughing wonderfully. In the words of my seatmate, “Spike Jonze is fucking brilliant.”
“Adaptation” is the complex story of a screenwriter attempting to turn the book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie. The movie’s title carries double significance: the adaptation of the book to film as well as the adaptation of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to life around him. Part of this story is true. The movie’s screenwriter really is Kaufman (writer of “Being John Malkovich”), the main character played by Nicolas Cage.
Kaufman was hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s book into movie form, but struggled with writing a movie about flowers themselves. The book contained no real conflict; none of the characters changed or grew and there were no sex scenes, guns or car chases. In despair, Kaufman ended up writing himself into the screenplay. The resulting movie did tell the book’s story, but included the lives of people surrounding the book as well.
Meryl Streep plays Orlean, the author, who spends extensive amounts of time with and just thinking about John Laroche (Chris Cooper). A talented, though rough horticulturist missing his two front teeth, Laroche poaches endangered flowers, namely orchids. Orlean’s book finds a way to romanticize the lives of orchids; she explains that orchids “are the sexiest flowers.” “Orchid” derives from the Latin word for testicle. Laroche even relates the pollination of orchids to making love in the springtime by describing insects as the soul mates of particular orchids. Such a flowery (pardon the pun) tale comes as unexpected from such a sunburned, arrogant man claiming that he is, “The smartest person I know.”
“Adaptation” is full of moments like this, where a great number or characters turn out to be more three-dimensional than one could have imagined, and yet the film is still consistently hilarious, never pretentious. One must realize, however, that only the basis of the story’s beginnings is true. Cage plays not only Charlie Kaufman, but his fictitious identical twin brother, aspiring screenwriter Donald as well.
The story begins with Charlie’s awkward meetings with women and follows his continuously self-criticizing behavior and fantastically pitiable wet dreams down a path of sex, guns and car chases. Cage plays Kaufman exceptionally, and this could easily be named as his best work. Every actor in the film does an excellent job, thanks to the talented direction of Spike Jonze.
After teaming up with Kaufman to direct “Being John Malkovich,” Jonze manages to take a great story and bring it to fruition. Allowing Kaufman’s ever-present voiceovers to pull his scattered brain together proves to be the funniest dialogue in the film. Jonze fills the film with flower imagery, while the entire movie is decorated with bright characters and striking visuals.
If “Adaptation” is any indication of the quality of movies coming, 2003 will be a great year for cinema. Hopefully, Jonze and Kaufman will continue to work together, and then maybe a movie will come along to top this one. Until then, you simply must see “Adaptation.” It is the best movie of the (month-long) year.