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Inside 'Charlie Kaufman' 

The metafictional mayhem in — and behind — Spike Jonze's Adaptation

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
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SO THERE'S THIS SCREENWRITER WITH A GALLOPING case of writer's block, which he resolves by inserting himself and his problem into a story he's adapting for some big-time producers. That's the premise of Adaptation, but please don't leave the building yet. The movie is not another in the lengthening line of whiny screeds about gallant screenwriters oppressed by executive scum — in this movie, the writer has only himself to blame for his paralysis. Nor, though it spawns plots and meta-plots like a bunny rabbit, is it one of those irritating hipster ur-narratives that keeps winking at you to make sure you get that this is not a true story. In fact, Adaptation, a divinely nutty and heartfelt second collaboration between writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (the team behind Being John Malkovich), is based on two true stories. One is New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's nonfiction best-seller The Orchid Thief, about a crazed Florida orchid poacher. The other is Charlie Kaufman's struggle to turn the book into a viable screenplay.

On paper the two writers, portrayed in the movie by Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, are a match made in heaven. Both are skittish about plot, preferring the mad illogic of real life as source material; both are fascinated by people who live sexier, more intense emotional lives than they do. Orlean spent months hanging around Florida's alligator-infested Fakahatchee swamp with John Laroche (played with manic avidity by Chris Cooper — rangy, toothless and emaciated almost beyond recognition), a fanatical collector and sometime thief of rare orchids who lives so far beyond the range of normal behavior that the word eccentric barely covers it. As Orlean charts her subject's monomania, and his breezy capacity for replacing one obsession with another when things don't work out, she uncovers her own longing for the degree, if not the kind (she doesn't even like orchids), of passion that drives people like Laroche.

Charlie loves Orlean's book, but, flummoxed by its lack of structure, he slips into a funk, a condition to which he's no stranger. A joyless, balding bag of nerves, Charlie is also chronically timid and insecure — in an uproarious flashback to the set of Being John Malkovich, Cage's Charlie creeps around, unnoticed by cast or crew — and given to neurotic stream-of-consciousness rants that reduce all listeners to stupefied silence. He is far and away the most maladapted creature in a movie rife with hardy perennials — from the sexy orchid, a parasite capable of endless mutation, to Laroche, a survivor who retools from orchid collector to porno-site operator without blinking, to Hollywood, seen early on in the movie as a creature rising from primordial slime, to Darwin himself, who pops in for a guest appearance. Charlie thrives nowhere, but unlike Woody Allen, whose schlubs have increasingly become a vanity project — they always come fortified with successful careers and babes panting for them — Kaufman takes his self-exposure right down to the bone, which could be tedious if he took himself more seriously. His Charlie longs for love with a wispy English classical musician (Cara Seymour) who's getting tired of leaving encouraging spaces for him to declare himself. His professional life is a shambles — we see him railing at Hollywood philistinism, explaining to a puzzled but accommodating executive (Tilda Swinton) everything he doesn't want to put into his movie, and stalling his crass agent (Ron Livingston), who wants results.

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So out of sync is Charlie with his environment that he's forced to collaborate with his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), who is, suspiciously, Charlie's exact opposite in every respect. A happy pig to Charlie's unhappy Aristotle, the upbeat but dopey Donald has a way with the ladies. This is insult enough, but when Donald's appalling screenplay about a serial killer with multiple-personality disorder becomes a hot property, Charlie is crushed. Cycling between despair and false epiphanies, Charlie has a sudden inspiration — he will insert himself into the screenplay — and flies off to meet Orlean at The New Yorker, where he promptly flakes out.

Meanwhile the movie keeps flashing us back and forth between Orlean's adventures among the orchid thieves. This is already a big chunk of event for a writer who hates plot — it's almost impossible to talk about Adaptation without getting bogged down in its endless twists and turns — and as things turn out, it's just hors d'oeuvres. Desperate, Charlie sullenly succumbs to his brother's entreaties to attend the story-structure seminar of the famous Robert McKee (played by the famous Brian Cox), where, to his astonishment, he gets some liberating advice. "Your characters must change," says McKee, "and change must come to them." The spell is broken, and Charlie, who has never wanted to do anything but write movies in which "nothing much happens," finds himself elaborating a film that plays like some dementedly overstuffed music video, stitched together by a hurricane of movie clichés — drugs, sex, violence, the works. In this florid new scenario, Orlean and her book become characters in Charlie's Freudian drama, whose cast includes everyone he wants to punish or be punished by. This is a good deal funnier than it sounds, not least because neither Streep nor Cage is overplaying their hand. Given the choice, both actors will lay on the Method — for which they're so often pegged as suffering Streep and crazy old Nic. Under Jonze's guidance, however, they seem relaxed, even faintly amused, and very, very sweet.

IS ADAPTATION SELF-INDULGENT? UNDOUBTEDLY. That, in part, is its subject. To the degree that it's a movie about the writing process, and the writer's dilemma — caught between analytical detachment on the one hand and obsessive overidentification with one's characters on the other — I'm not sure that anyone other than working writers will care much. But it's hard to imagine audiences not warming to this willfully convoluted movie's broader themes: love, longing, incompleteness, envy, family, and the desire to find comfort and structure in a comfortless, structureless world. In the end, Orlean discovers her life's true passion, and so — following an insight that properly belongs in one of the less reputable self-help manuals, but manages to come off as brave and quixotic — does Charlie. Adaptation is hardly profound, but it's one of the most soulful and loopily romantic movies I've seen all year. For all I know, in real life Charlie Kaufman may be a raging Lothario with Valentino looks and chicks bearing down on him from every direction. But somehow I doubt it. No matter how many raves the critics send his way, the man steadfastly refuses to be photographed. For this alone, I'm ready to marry him right now.

ADAPTATION | Directed by SPIKE JONZE | Written by CHARLIE KAUFMAN and DONALD KAUFMAN, based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean | Produced by EDWARD SAXON, VINCENT LANDAY and JONATHAN DEMME | Released by Columbia Pictures | AMC Century City, Pacific Grove, Mann Criterion

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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