Few recent films have stripped open the angst-ridden mind and heart of a writer with more wit and firecracker imagination than "Adaptation," the latest cinema jape from the unbuttoned "Being John Malkovich" team of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. Even more than "Malkovich," this film is a real cockeyed delight - though here, more than ever, the word "real" is relative.
One of the year's most clever comedies, "Adaptation" is a movie about writing a movie - or, more accurately, a movie about trying to write a movie (an adaptation of Susan Orlean's actual book "The Orchid Thief"), and nearly going crazy in the process. The hero here, in both the fictional and real-life sense, is writer Kaufman, who dramatizes (and fantasizes) his own inability to make a coherent script of "The Orchid Thief" into an ingenious comedy about modern moviemaking, art versus commerce, brotherhood, sexual dysfunction and the need to get a little passion into your life.
Some of "Adaptation" is real; most of it isn't. But almost all of it is funny and provocative in ways many other Hollywood movies, especially the adaptations, can't touch.
Playing Kaufman is the incredible Nicolas Cage, who portrays the writer as a classic schlep: morose, insecure, self-obsessed, needy, fat, balding, pretentious, a failure with women, cursed with the fear that he may be a one-hit wonder. Rescuing him, temporarily, is the job of adapting "The Orchid Thief," the New Yorker piece and book in which writer Orlean (Meryl Streep) chronicled, with typical New Yorker literacy and sprawl, her fascination with the orchid obsession of Florida flower bandit John Laroche (Chris Cooper). It's a plush if offbeat gig. But Charlie, ignoring the fulsome praise of his admiring producer Valerie (Tilda Swinton), remains obsessed with failure, just as his genial hanger-on twin Donald (also Cage) is obsessed with success.
Watching Cage play with, and against, himself on screen as the half-real, half-fake Kaufman brothers is a hoot. It's a piece of virtuoso performance and camera trickery to set beside Gene Kelly dancing with himself in the "Alter-Ego Ballet" of "Cover Girl." Soon every awful nightmare of Charlie's is being doubly realized - women reject him and nothing he writes makes sense - while Donald, a neophyte screenwriter enraptured by stereotypes, is writing, with no sweat, an idiotic psycho-thriller screenplay called "The Three" ("Silence of the Lambs" crossed with "Psycho"). While Donald religiously follows the dictates of real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played with deadly accuracy by Brian Cox), Charlie stays cursed by his inability to turn the free-form, deeply personal "Orchid Thief" into a script - until he hits on the questionable strategy of inserting himself into the story.
Finally art, life and screenplay cliches all merge. Charlie's plight and Donald's triumphs are intercut with teasing scraps of "The Orchid Thief's" story: Susan's growing friendship with Laroche. But writer Kaufman has another weird card up his sleeve. When Charlie and Donald begin tailing Susan and Laroche for research, they discover that their subjects' lives have become exactly the kind of cliche thriller screenplay (with drugs, killings and chases through the swamp) Hollywood would have wanted anyway.
I thought "Being John Malkovich" was a little overrated, but "Adaptation" is so cunning and funny, it would take a churl to watch it with a straight face. The movie actually succeeds in conveying the essence and theme of "The Orchid Thief," the importance of passion, while smartly turning Kaufman's writer's block dilemmas into high comedy - and sometimes moving comedy as well.
Though Jonze is a former TV-commercial whiz, he doesn't demonstrate much obvious visual virtuosity, beyond the double dose of Cage. It's a drab-looking film. But the jokes are funny and the actors are tops, especially Cage, Streep and the amazing Cooper, a screw-loose revelation as gap-toothed, force-of-nature orchid bandit Laroche.
But what really makes "Adaptation" sing is the way it's able to take real Hollywood traumas, a ton of movie allusions and even The Turtles' '60s anthem "Happy Together" and, without losing underlying gravity, turn them all into hilarious set pieces. Early on, Charlie cites Fellini as the creator of "the only new recent film genre," the mockumentary - and "Adaptation" mixes truth and fiction with similar brio. We may guess that, in some ways, this script was the way Kaufman solved his own insoluble writing problem, but that makes us laugh, too. In fact, there's only one proper Hollywood ending to this story. Next year, Charlie and the surreal "Donald" Kaufman (listed as co-writers in the playful credits) should win twin Oscars for best adapted screenplay. They've earned it - really.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Adaptation"
Directed by Spike Jonze; written by Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman, based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean; photographed by Lance Acord; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen; production designed by KK Barrett; visual effects supervised by Gray Marshall; music by Carter Burwell; produced by Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay, Jonathan Demme. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation; opens Friday, Dec. 20. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (language, sexuality, nudity, violence).
Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman - Nicolas Cage
Susan Orlean - Meryl Streep
John Laroche - Chris Cooper
Valerie - Tilda Swinton
Amelia - Cara Seymour
Robert McKee - Brian Cox Caroline - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times