Thursday 22 December 2011

Movie Review: Adaptation (2002)

A film about the struggles of writing the script for the film is a desperate attempt to break through a severe case of writer's block with flashes of genius. Adaptation sparkles in parts, infuriates in others, until it loses its nerve and fizzles meekly into contrived skulking around the swamps.

Writer Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has been commissioned to create a screenplay out of The Orchid Thief, a book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) chronicling the adventures of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a maverick Floridian involved in the collection of rare orchids with Seminole Indians.

Charlie finds it impossible to squeeze a screenplay out of Orlean's book, which mostly consists of lyrical statements about the beauty of flowers. Not helping matters is Donald Kaufman (again Nicolas Cage), Charlie's twin brother, who is also a screenwriter and crashing at Charlie's apartment. Donald gets on a roll writing a routine serial killer screenplay, inspired after attending a seminar by screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox).

Donald's completed script is immediately snapped up for a large sum, heaping more pressure on Charlie. He finally succumbs and seeks the help of McKee, and together Charlie and Donald make contact with Orlean to try and understand her motivations for writing the book. The brothers uncover much more to the story of the orchid thief than what Orlean included in her best seller, leading to a messy confrontation in Florida.

Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean, John Laroche, and Robert McKee are all real people, and The Orchid Thief is a real book. Donald Kaufman and the convoluted post-book relationship between Orlean and Laroche are not real. Kaufman inserts himself into his own adaptation, and vigorously mixes reality with fiction to produce an intriguing if disorienting narrative.

As a story of the heavy emptiness that can crush a writer struggling to create, Adaptation is a welcome homage to the art of finding the right words to convey less obvious experiences. Cage provides a voice-over as Charlie Kaufman's thoughts race in all directions except the useful one, and his stream of jumbled ideas often reflects what has already transpired on the screen.

Adaptation does lose its way in the final half hour, chucking most of the writer's-block discourse overboard and careening into a climax that involves drugs, infidelity, shotguns, swamp chases, car crashes and alligators. It may be Kaufman's attempt to sharply poke Hollywood's insistence on inserting empty thriller elements into even the most cerebral of films, but the phony action just undermines most of what preceded it.

The weak conclusion does not, however, diminish from three terrific central performances, four when accounting for Cage's incredible double role. Cage appears to effortlessly gives Charlie and Donald separate yet linked personas, Charlie a borderline neurotic but still trying to be more responsible than the carefree and almost reckless Donald. In most of Cage's scenes he acts opposite himself, convincingly enough that the gimmicky aspects of the dual role are quickly forgotten and replaced by sheer admiration.

Streep's performance is powered by a mischievous undercurrent of barely concealed sensuality that hints early and often that there is a lot more going on in her life than just flowers. The Orlean character is victimized by the film's ending, but Streep survives the muddle. Cooper won the Supporting Actor Academy Award for a long-haired, gap-toothed performance as John Laroche, a man comfortably at ease with his outside-the-lines path in life.

In a final ironic acknowledgement of Adaptation's successful blurring of the lines between reality and fiction, both Charlie and Donald are credited as screenwriters, and the film is dedicated to Donald. The script was nominated for an Academy Award, making Donald Kaufman the first fully fictitious person nominated for an Oscar.

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