"Adaptation" (IMDb listing) is impossible to classify, but here goes: Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is a burgeoning screenwriter in the midst of seeing his first produced screenplay, "Being John Malkovich," go in front of the cameras. An overweight, balding, compulsive self-loather, Kaufman takes on his next writing gig, adapting Susan Orlean's best seller, "The Orchid Thief," to the screen. Faced with insurmountable writer's block, dealing with a book that many feel is unadaptable, and witnessing his slacker twin brother's (also played by Cage) success as a painfully novice screenwriter, Kaufman begins to exhibit signs of insanity, as his mind races with thoughts of love, hate, disaster and longing for the perfect way to write his screenplay. "Adaptation" also follows Orlean herself (Meryl Streep) three years earlier, as she goes about interviewing the eccentric subject of her book, a slightly demented Florida flower dealer named John LaRoche (Chris Cooper). As with Kaufman, Orlean longs to discover her passions in life, and even goes so far as to jeopardize her marriage, health and sanity to find her desires.
To explain why "Adaptation" worked for me is to begin back at "Being John Malkovich," a film that I really didn't care for. Nothing against Kaufman's writing, but his eccentric storytelling always came off, and still does, a bit gimmicky. It appears as if the quirks of his screenplays were born out of a need to be different instead of organically growing out of the story. "Adaptation" is just as bizarre as "Malkovich" (and "Human Nature," Kaufman's other produced screenplay), but it feels real this time, with all the quirks coming out of Kaufman's insane need to complete the "Orchid Thief" screenplay. "Adaptation" is about as personal a screenplay as there is, with Kaufman taking potshots at his family, and even his own frail appearance, and it's daring to be that far out there in your public self-loathing. I also adore Kaufman's take on the real meaning of "adaptation," which goes far beyond just bringing a book to the screen. Without having to deal with feral humans, or portals into an Oscar-nominated actor's head, Kaufman has written another script that defies convention, but this time it's in a way we can all relate to.
To portray Kaufman, Nicolas Cage gained some weight, lost some ego, and put on a horrible, balding wig. Not flattering in the least, but Cage is never one to take the easy way out. "Adaptation" is a tough role for Cage, as it requires him to plays twins who look alike, but have completely different outlooks on love, life and screenwriting. These types of complications are nothing to Cage, who knocks this role out of the park, completely encapsulating Kaufman's spiraling neuroses and depression with ease. This Cage's finest hour in some time, with a tour de force performance that you hope doesn't represent the real Kaufman, as that would be too depressing to bear.
Returning to the director's chair is Spike Jonze, the playful filmmaker behind "Malkovich," and even the recent "Jackass" movie (in a producer/actor position). Jonze is a visualist, with an endless bag of tricks at his disposal to sell the images created by Kaufman. But that's where his talents end. It's easy to be charmed by Jonze's impish creativity, but I've yet to see the man tell a story that didn't involve shallow tricks, even in his long and industrious career as a music video director. Jonze and Kaufman are a match made in heaven, as Kaufman needs gimmicks to get through his stories, and Jonze needs the stories to sell his gimmicks. But with "Adaptation," Kaufman is growing as a screenwriter, and taking more chances. Jonze is still trying to skirt by with camera tricks and goofball sentimentality.
"Adaptation" does have a wonderful way about it that reveals its tricks as it plays out, not letting the audience feel left out of the joke. However, with the climax of the picture, the winking is thrown out as Kaufman and Jonze create an ambiguous finale. Had the filmmakers been more aggressive in chasing obtuse symbolism throughout the film, I might not have blinked over the nonsense that encapsulates the third act of the picture. When Kaufman complains that he doesn't want to write a film about "guns, car chases and characters learning life lessons," you expect that when the film eventually ends this way, it's a big joke, right? Not entirely. Kaufman and Jonze are suddenly mum about this insanity's meaning.
"Adaptation" is at its best when it's playing it straight, letting Kaufman's wildly frenetic mind lead the way. The film finds peace in that tornado of a brain, and when he freaks out over not being able to write a conclusion for his script, I guess he intended the same for "Adaptation" as well.
Filmfodder Grade: B+