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CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002) December 16, 2008

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PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl

adaptation

Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGHAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kauffman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting it as the movie progresses.   Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but in the end it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process.  There are mysteries here, indeed, but they reside entirely within the most rational lobes of our brainpan, and are completely resolved there. 

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; it might have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals–toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a “New Yorker” journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kauffman–shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with the maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in a distinguished, if uneven, career. 

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  A minor issue is that the Orleans/Larouche counterplot–despite such welcome spectales such as Meryl Streep  trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls–pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufmann; when that couple is on screen, we are anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.   The other, somewhat more serious criticism, is that Adaptation is geared to a very specialized, artistic audience, and only resonates deeply with writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types–and with the kind of film industry insiders who disdain jargon such as “industry” and “pitch.”

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:  “…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

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1. WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 3/13/09 « 366 Weird Movies - March 13, 2009

[…] York (2008):  The directorial debut by weird scriptwriter Charles Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is a typically twisty tale of a director who seeks to […]


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