“Adaptation” is one of the most original motion pictures in history. It is not a film that merely reshapes the art form but attacks it with sharp barbs and hilarious insights while it does so. The whole movie spins brilliant circles that intertwine to create a new cohesive film structure.
First, this movie flies in the face of the French New Wave’s auteur theory, which states that the director is the author of the film, because this is most definitely the screenwriter’s picture. Not only is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s original voice prevalent throughout the film, he’s the main character. In trying to adapt New York reporter Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay, Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”) decides to put himself (or at least a version of himself) into the movie.
The audience is treated to both the accounts of the book and Kaufman’s struggle to place those accounts into a comprehensive and compelling screenplay. Kaufman discovers that the book, which involves Orlean’s relationship with a Florida orchid stealer, is not conducive to film adaptation.
Thrown into this mess is Kaufman’s twin brother Donald (who is not a real person but does share screenwriting credit with Charlie). Donald decides to write his own screenplay and happily succumbs to the screenplay culture structure that Charlie detests.
This film attacks the traditional screenplay form and formula, not only in execution but also as a plot device. Today most people have thrown away the dream of writing the great American novel to write the great American screenplay. A whole culture of books and seminars have sprung up in the past ten years to feed off this desire. One of the results is Robert McKee, a teacher of strict screenwriting structure, who becomes a major target of this film. Donald embraces McKee and ends up selling his contrived screenplay about a serial killer for a lot of money. Charlie refuses to conform and continues to struggle with his script about flowers.
The two stories, one of which seems to be a film within the film, fold into each other creating a wonderfully wicked parody of the Hollywood moviemaking mentality, which explains Donald’s screenwriting credit.
The whole cast is great. Nicholas Cage, who plays both Kaufman brothers, proves again that he can act, a fact audiences tend to forget with films like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Con Air.” Cage finds the right nuances to differentiate them as two sides of the same coin. (Perhaps they are the two sides of Charlie?)
But the best performances come from “The Orchid Thief” side of the film. Chris Cooper creates a mischievous character as John LaRoche, the title character of the book. In film after film, he has proven to be one of the best character actors working. Check out his work from “American Beauty,” “Matewan,” and “Lone Star” to witness his incredible range.
And then there is Meryl Streep, who has become more beautiful with age. Is there no limit to her talent? This film demands her to be intelligent, strong, tender, delicate and a homicidal bitch. And she pulls it off without any effort shown. The woman is amazing.