In the late 1990s we saw a kind of revolt by some filmmakers against the conventional structure and even character creation we were used to: Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run," Kevin Smith's "Dogma," and the Charlie Kaufman-Spike Jonze "Being John Malkovich" are the exemplars. Now Kaufman and Jonze have combined again on "Adaptation," an, umm, adaptation of Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief," which itself began as a New Yorker article.
The film is the story of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman trying desperately to adapt Orlean's book - which has a diffuse plot, if any at all, hardly explores any relationships, and is about, well, orchids, and a man who stole a rare orchid from a protected state preserve and stood trial for it. It's also about his ongoing fight with another orchid breeder and the nature of the orchid market as a whole.
So where's the story? Well, that's the problem as we watch Nicolas Cage, as Charlie, struggle to find a way to make a movie out of the book. Meanwhile his identical twin brother Donald (also played by Cage), as outgoing and effervescent as Charlie is insecure and shy, decides he'll try his hand at screenwriting and comes up with a million-dollar script for his own film - about a serial killer - just as Charlie is about to abandon everything on this one, probably including his life.
This is a film that is just about perfect around the edges, but has a hole at its center, which I'll get to in a minute. Among its brilliant moments is the way we see Charlie begin his adaptation - with the history of the earth from 4 billion years ago to today. No, that won't work, so he'll try another way in. He wants to meet Ms. Orlean but is too shy to do it. Meanwhile Orlean (Meryl Streep in a performance so textured, so good she deserves an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress) has gotten very, very close to her orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper as a good ol' boy with missing teeth and an expertise in many other areas of biology). The currently ubiquitous Brian Cox plays the real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who transforms Donald's life and is helpful, sort of, to Charlie. There's even a momentary cameo by Catherine Keener that just illustrates how pathetic Charlie is in his social development.
The film does have its own structure: it cuts back and forth between Kaufman in L.A. and Streep and Cooper in Florida, and also back and forth in time, with an ultimate confrontation in the present, in a Florida swamp, between the Kaufman twins and their subjects.
Jonze as director doesn't let up for a minute; his way of shooting and editing is so kinetic (he directed "The Three Kings") that he pounds us relentlessly with more and more examples of Charlie's painful self-consciousness. (Cage sweats more than Albert Brooks ever did in "Broadcast News.") But for me the problem at the center of the film is the casting of Cage as Charlie. Let me speculate here: Jonze is married to Sofia Coppola, Francis's daughter. Her cousin, and Francis's nephew, is Nicolas Cage. Is it possible she suggested that he cast her cousin as Charlie?
If so, it was a mistake. Cage is asked to narrate the film as well as act in it, and he is a thinly talented actor with an uninteresting and monotonous voice. In trying to convey the extremely repressed Charlie he drains his voice of any emotion, instead of letting us see and hear the inner fire that attacks him. The fear of action, which Charlie has, is not the same as a fear of speaking to oneself with emotion; and this I think is the reason why the film ends up much less than it should have been. And yet there's enough going on around the edges that we can find it very enjoyable. So much of the film is good, particularly the relationship between Streep and Cooper, that we are fascinated and moved by it. And the ending, which should not be told, is a brilliant stroke, a wonderfully bold piece of work that we do not expect and is both inventively conceived and smoothly executed. Next time, though, please give us a different lead.