19 June 2009

The Year 2002: Adaptation (Spike Jonze)

So, how do you follow up 'Being John Malkovitch', one of the most mind bending films made in recent times? Why, by making the next one twice as mad and thrice as loony. Adaptation, the second film from the partnership of pen smith Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze takes on the notion of extreme writer's block, in this case Susan Orlean's 'The Orchid Thief'' proving the inflexible tome, plays with the formula of several genres, stars Nicholas Cage as the writer himself, as well as his fictional twin brother Donald and generally gives anyone, attempting to explain Adaptation, a raging headache. So, wish good luck to Roy See of the Modern Post, his brilliant, eclectic blog, taking on the best of pop culture, oddities and, of course, movies, who takes on this incredible film stating that 'it's 'a lot better, in fact, that Being John Malkovitch' and consider him 'duly wowed' , in this great submission to Counting Down The Zeroes.

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman outdo Being John Malkovich; and two Nicolas Cages are better than one.
At one point in the movie, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) stands up in the middle of a screenwriting seminar conducted by Robert McKee (Brian Cox) and asks what happens when you have a screenplay in which, well, "nothing much happens." "Nothing much happens"; that's what actually happens the first two thirds (or acts, if you're into the whole dramatic structure thing) of Adaptation. And this self-referencing reflexivity is the whole concept behind the movie: Adaptation is a film about Charlie Kaufman's attempt to write the film Adaptation.

If your taste in movies is anything like mine, at this point you will probably be reluctant to continue reading and tempted to write Adaptation off as another clever film that's all conceit and no heart. (That's how I feel about Being John Malkovich, the previous collaboration between Kaufman and director Spike Jonze.) But don't; it gets better, a lot better, in fact, than Being John Malkovich.

As shown in much of his work, Kaufman has a propensity to mix fact with fiction. Being John Malkovich and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind are fairly successful examples, but Adaptation arguably represents the apogee of Kaufman's artfulness in fictionalizing fact. Kaufman writes himself into the movie, where he is attempting to adapt Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. The book is based on Orlean's experiences while investigating the life and work of John Laroche, a rogue plant dealer who used Seminole Indians to defend his stealing of rare orchids from a state-protected wild swamp in south Florida. Kaufman, Orlean, the book, Laroche, the Seminole Indians, the orchids are all real; even Robert McKee, who was mentioned earlier, is a real life script writer. What happens to all these real people, however, is pretty much pure fiction.

Interestingly, Kaufman not only writes himself into the film as the main protagonist, but also creates an alter ego, his twin brother, Donald. Unlike Charlie, Donald is a total hack who attends a seminar by McKee and decides he wants to and can write movies like his brother. The problem is that Donald actually succeeds in producing a silly screenplay that Charlie's agent (played effectively by Ron Livingston) thinks has great potential, whereas Charlie, the Oscar-nominated and acclaimed writer of Being John Malkovich, only manages to perspire a lot and masturbate while fantasizing about an attractive waitress he meets and Orlean.

Earlier I mentioned that "nothing much happens" in the first two acts of the movie, and you might be wondering why that would be the case since there's such a wealth of events in Orlean's book that could occupy substantial screen time quite fruitfully. However, Kaufman cleverly triple-bags the audience's attention with a series of voice-overs and first-person narratives: we are trapped by Charlie's perception of what he reads in The Orchid Thief, which is further obscured by Orlean's first-person narratives of her experiences with Laroche, who is not exactly the world's most straightforward guy. So, for the first two acts, all we get ever get to know are Charlie's insecurities and despair as he tries to write Adaptation and retain his relationship with his friend Amelia (Cara Seymour), interspersed with Orlean's findings (or, to be specific, lack of findings) during her time spent with Laroche. More importantly, though, is that despite the clever conceit and the deceptive nature of the first person angle, we are allowed to genuinely feel for Charlie, Orlean, and Laroche. (Even Donald reveals an unexpected depth of character in the third and final act.)

Kaufman has said that he doesn't know what the hell a third act is, but apparently he can write one hell of a third act. Some may see it as a deus ex machina, but Kaufman has been setting us up all along for this final act. Suffice it to say that if nothing happens in the first two acts of the story, then everything happens in the third and final act. All questions are answered, and there is complete resolution.

Of course, Kaufman's screenplay is just part of it. Besides being nominated for "Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay" in the 2003 Academy Awards, Adaptation was also nominated for the work of Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper (Cooper won "Best Actor in a Supporting Role" for his fine performance as Laroche). Cage was given separate credits for his roles as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, and deservedly so (although he only got one nomination). You could tell Charlie apart from Donald without them even having to speak. And word has it that Robert McKee personally picked Brian Cox to play him in the film; clearly a stellar choice.

I suspect the reason why the film's ending doesn't feel like a cheat is because Kaufman knew the rules well enough to break them, such that the film ultimately made more sense than if it had followed the golden rules of screenwriting. McKee says never used voice-overs; Kaufman used three different voice-overs. McKee says never cheat on the ending by using a deus ex machina; Kaufman uses one. The only rule of McKee's that Kaufman follows is "wow them in the end, and you've got a hit." Consider me duly wowed.

1 comment:

Stacia said...

Terrific write up of a great film. I love Kaufman and this is my favorite film of his. It's such an intensely personal film, and it has several scenes and moments I think back on often.