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Adaptation is the art of self-abuse

Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman. With Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox, Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston, and Jay Tavare. A Columbia Pictures release (114 minutes). At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Harvard Square, and the Circle/Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Like the title hero of Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have crawled through a portal into their own brains — and, delighted by the endlessly self-reflecting prospect, they show no signs of coming back. That’s not quite the same as having one’s head up one’s ass, but it’s close enough. Clever and ironic in a solipsistic way, Adaptation is an amusing exercise in artistic onanism until it dies a slow and painful death by terminal whimsy.

The film, you’ll have gathered, has little to do with the book it ostensibly adapts, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The movie Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage, whose performance depends largely on his having love handles and thinning hair and looking like a quizzically stunned woodland creature) calls Orlean’s book "that sprawling New Yorker shit" — and indeed it started out life as a magazine article before Orlean padded it into a flimsy book-length memoir partly about John Laroche (Chris Cooper in the film), a Florida oddball obsessed with orchids, but mostly about herself and how sad it is that she can’t feel as excited about anything as Laroche does about his flowers.

In short, it’s no story at all, and though in the film we see Susan (Meryl Streep) trying to get a grip on her subject from time to time, Charlie’s efforts to wrangle that material into a screenplay, and his efforts to wrangle that material into a screenplay about writing that screenplay, and so on, provide the giddying gist of the film. He makes it tortuously clear how difficult it is to translate such nebulous material to the screen, to remain true to the intent, indeterminable though it may be, of the author, to forgo the introduction of helpful elements like car chases, gunfights, drug running, a love story, or a plot. His misgivings fill the soundtrack with a litany of anxiety and self-loathing in which the words "fat," "bald," and "pathetic" predominate.

Intercut with scenes of him sweating at his typewriter are false starts of the "film" itself, including an opening flashback montage that begins in "Los Angeles four and half billion years earlier" and ends with Charlie’s birth. These stillborn episodes get him nowhere, and neither does he find relief in his botched attempts at dating, or in his masturbatory fantasies about Susan, her sexy agent, Valerie (Tilda Swinton), or the cute waitress (Judy Greer) who expresses interest in his screenplay.

The viewer fares no better. The effect, despite some smart-ass laughs, some half-baked attempts to explore the notion of "adaptation" as both an artistic and an evolutionary process (hence the long flashback), is as pointless as staring into the infinite reflections of parallel mirrors and as suffocating as the myth of Uroboros, the snake that eternally swallows its own tail. But that’s how Charlie describes a plot turn of The 3 ("Psycho meets Silence of the Lambs"), a script written by his evil twin, Donald (fictitious, also played by Cage, and coyly credited as co-screenwriter of Adaptation). Donald aspires to his brother’s professional success (he’s already shown having more luck than Charlie hitting on women on the set of Being John Malkovich). He’s been taking a scriptwriting seminar with the daunting Robert McKee (Brian Cox) who browbeats his audience with such admonitions as "God help you if you use voiceover narration!"

Charlie regards Donald’s project with contempt, though his sarcastic remarks often backfire (his suggestion that Donald make his villain a "deconstructionist" who cuts his victims into little pieces ends up in the script). As Donald’s formulaic hackwork pays off, however, Charlie has second thoughts, and the "principles" of the McKee method begin to make sense. To most viewers, they made sense long before this point, but rather than adopt them, Adaptation devolves into a parable of the conflict between artistic purity and pragmatic compromise as represented by the two brothers.

Neither, in this case, wins, as the film in its last half-hour sails off on a contrived and witless tangent that violates both Charlie’s principles and the McKee method (hint: when the green powder shows up, you might want to take a powder yourself). This ending could be a brave and ironic metaphor for the film’s own failed and futile ambitions. But as old-fashioned moviemaking of either the artistically pure or the commercially corrupt kind goes, it just plain sucks.

Issue Date: December 19 - 26, 2002
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