****/**** Image A+ Sound A+
starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Cara Seymour
screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, semi-based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
directed by Spike Jonze
by Walter Chaw A breathless map of the nervous play of axons and dendrites, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. is an intimate cartography of the human animal in all its florid insecurity, ugliness, and potential for passionate pursuit. In relating its tale of screenwriter Kaufman's existential wrestle with adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, the picture takes on a tangle of Lacanian meta-observation that begins with the nervy creation of a Kaufman-doppelgänger/id-projection and ends with a literal destruction of said phantom. A deceptively simple film given all its contortions and acrobatics, Adaptation. is concerned with the ways in which a man doubts himself, doubts his relationships (as well as the implicit lie of the social "professional smile"), and learns almost too late the damnably difficult (for the intelligent and the sensitive) ability to accept the simple and the obvious at face value. The picture suggests that to be genuinely adaptive is to give oneself over to entropy armed only with the knowledge of self; more than right, its journey is fantastic.
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is a screenwriter who, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich, finds himself courted as the scribe of choice for the adaptation of a literary flavour-of-the-month. Charlie's brother (a character with no correlative in real life) Donald (Cage again, in the finest twin performance since Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers) is cocksure and woman-wise to Charlie's twitchy self-loathing in a way that reminds of the swinger/nebbish iteration of the Jekyll/Hyde interplay. Charlie's difficulties in producing an "anti-narrative about flowers" is set against Donald's ease in producing a coveted bit of colluded formula called "The 3", a serial killer/multiple personality thriller that sets Hollywood ablaze. That Adaptation. comments on its own un-marketability is only one level of extra-textual self-knowledge: consider as well that the identical twin constructs the corollary text and that said text comments upon the creation of an impossible doubling (trebling). It's a delicious, pleasingly onanistic pastime to deconstruct Adaptation. (a pastime referred to more than once in the film, natch), but doing so is necessarily a personal thing--the difference between being intimate with someone and watching someone masturbate.
Unable to find a way to tell a story once the centre of that story is revealed to be an impotent yearn for elusive passion (just like Charlie's--see?), Charlie writes himself into the screenplay (the celluloid product of which, of course, we're watching), in addition to author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her titular orchid thief John Laroche (a flat brilliant Chris Cooper). In telling three parallel stories, Jonze and Kaufman encompass each of Kaufman's (and subsequently our) "eureka" moments, plus the entire scope of life on the planet, of Darwin's revelations about species (including a not-very-subtle glimpse of the food chain), and of the necessity for two voices to reconstruct a dial tone--each apparent discursion resolving itself in the primacy of passion in its multifoliate expressions: sex, ambition, obsession, and at the root of it all, creation.
Adaptation. is technically dazzling and genuinely hilarious. It's more accessible than the vaguely arch Being John Malkovich, though also more involved and intricate by half. Its performances impossibly accomplished and Jonze's direction a thing of enviable self-assurance, the picture beyond all its surface charm is an intricate and heartbreaking piece. Another gorgeous love story in a 2002 calendar year chock-a-block with brave and beautiful romances, Adaptation. is a defining film, a benchmark example of how brilliance combines with courage and how, through that sexual, ambitious, obsessive, alchemical process, it creates something rare and, in a searing, seductive (Malkovich-ian) way, provides a porthole into that noble, trembling incoherence that defines us all. Originally published: December 13, 2002.
by Bill Chambers There is a teensy-weensy Superbit icon on one corner of Adaptation.'s DVD cover art, though Columbia TriStar disobeyed their Superbit mandate by supplementing the disc with Adaptation.'s winning theatrical trailer (the one aptly set to David Bowie/Queen's "Under Pressure") and a section of filmographies. The Superbit distinction is only really made in this case to sanction a DTS 5.1 track, one that has inexplicably underwhelmed those DVD reviewers who got there before us--the swamp scenes are utterly enveloping, to begin with, while rafter-shaking use of the LFE channel during two key car crashes intensifies each with respect to immediacy and emotionalism. I can't say I expected a soundfield this immersive from the Adaptation. DVD, and I screened the film theatrically in a THX auditorium. (The Dolby Digital 5.1 listening option is a bit more restrained.) Meanwhile, the quality of the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is transcendent. The DVD comes in a clear keepcase packaged with a funny memo sent cryptically "from the desk of Robert Stephenson" to, even more cryptically, someone named Clair. Removing this insert reveals a list of chapter stops beneath. Originally published: May 30, 2003.