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IN SHORT: Best of the Year. [Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images. 112 minutes]
We would not be exaggerating by much to say that there isn't a single piece of action that doesn't affect something down the line in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, whose story begins in "real life" during the production of Jonze's Being John Malkovich and caroms around the life and fevered imagination of writer Charlie Kaufman. Like his writing on Malkovich, Kaufman's story is chock full of "real" people, including himself and most of the stars of BJM. This time the blurred line between fact and fiction is accentuated by parallel stories occurring years apart and then coming together like the proverbial pair of freight trains coming together on a short track.
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is the star of this show. With BJM in production, Kaufman has done what you're supposed to do in the film business. He's made a deal for his next job -- he's a bankable commodity -- while Malkovich is shooting. If the film bombs, he's still got work -- an adaptation of Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief." It is a book which, to put it simply, has no story that can be adapted. Thus, a challenge! Kaufman's roommate is his twin brother Donald (also Cage). Inspired by Charlie's success, Donald has decided that he, too, shall be a screenwriter, and signs up for Robert McKee's industry famous "How to Write a Screenplay" seminar. Charlie doesn't think much of McKee, and thinks even less of his brother's script idea -- a thriller about a serial killer whose main characters are the same schizophrenic -- but he loves his brother and helps out when he is asked.
If you think you can see where this story is going, raise your hand. OK, that's about 99% of y'all. Let's move on.
"The Orchid Thief" happens to be a real book, written by The New Yorker columnist Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Though we are told the book has no story, it does have a main character, botanist John Laroche (Chris Cooper), whose obsession with orchids is contagious. Laroche has been arrested for poaching rare orchids from Federal lands and has found innovative ways around those laws, too. He will pass that obsession on to Orlean, who leaves a comfortable home (and husband, David) to slog through Floridian swamps in search of the rarest of the rare, the elusive "ghost" orchid.
If you think you can see where this story is going, raise your hand. OK, that's about everybody.
Of course, we had none of those hints when we planted for Adaptation. So thank the amazing mind of Charlie Kaufman (the writer) for writing a screenplay filled with actions that prove that anyone who tells you what you can or can't do in a screenplay is wrong. What is even greater is that he does it while including Mr. McKee as a vital character in his script and doing so without dissing the man or his teaching.
You can also thank Technology for allowing director Jonze to shoot scenes in which actor Cage plays both Kaufman brothers, moving around each other in ways that defy simple explanations of how he did it. Cage is granted the opportunity to play identical twins who have little in common other than their looks. Charlie is introspective and neurotic. He misses all the signals sent by the one woman in his pathetic love life and is fairly inept when he tries to start new relationships. Donald is like a puppy. He's enthusiastic. He doesn't take no for an answer and he doesn't have any rules that define his life. Charlie is appalled when Donald hits on one of the crew members on the Malkovich set (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Donald is more than willing to impersonate his brother to achieve an end, when necessary. Cage's take on the pair, as he tells us in the press notes, is that Charlie is an "artist" and Don would be making commercials.
One brother struggles while the other glides towards inconceivable success. It's a great pairing and one which is never tainted by any kind of jealousy. If fact, it is Donald who conceives the idea which will bring the parallel stories, separated by a period of about five or six years, together. When that happens, the result is nothing you'll ever see coming.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Adaptation, he would have paid . . .
We now add Adaptation to a very short list (including only Memento and Pleasantville) of films we enjoyed so much that we went back a second time, just for the pleasure of watching.
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