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An ‘Adaptation’ like no other

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Times Staff Writer

It’s typical of the nerve, the bravado, the sheer giddy playfulness and sense of fun that characterize what has to be the boldest and most imaginative studio film of the year that “Adaptation,” written by Charlie Kaufman, starts with a character plaintively asking, “Do I have an original thought in my head?”

It’s not just any character who’s worried, it’s a woefully insecure writer named Charlie Kaufman who is agonizing over turning Susan Orlean’s bestselling “The Orchid Thief” into a film. Which is exactly the problem the real-life Kaufman faced after he and his directing partner, Spike Jonze, took on the Orlean book after triumphing with the boundary-expanding “Being John Malkovich.”

Wait, there’s more. In writing “Adaptation,” Kaufman has given himself an imaginary identical twin brother named Donald (a hangdog Nicolas Cage plays them both), who actually gets screen credit. Kaufman has taken real people like his agent, the studio executive who hired him, author Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her subject John Laroche (Chris Cooper in a career-changing performance), even screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) and turned them into half-fictional creatures of his imagination. And he’s written a script about how he couldn’t write a script that is not only dazzlingly funny but also a wonderful essay on the creative process, on why and how writers write and the outlandish places where passion and inspiration make their home.

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Even more impressive is how intrinsically cinematic “Adaptation’s” through-the-looking-glass narrative style is. The multiple ways the film self-referentially doubles back on itself are difficult to describe on the page but immediately accessible and easy to enjoy on screen. Kaufman and director Jonze, in effect the writer’s psychic twin, count on our movie-savvy minds to understand cinema’s potential for subterfuge and effortlessly make the illusion/reality/illusion leaps that are the heart of the film’s appeal.

In a typical bit of business, the film’s title turns out to have two parallel meanings. While in Hollywood adaptation is the process of turning a book into a film, in the plant world it refers to what “Orchid Thief” protagonist Laroche calls “a profound process” whereby mutable orchids “figure out how to thrive in the world.”

Thriving in the world is one scenario screenwriter Kaufman has never mastered. As played by Cage (always at his best -- witness “Valley Girl” -- as some kind of goofball), the woebegone Kaufman starts the film with a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is self-flagellation raised to an art form. Awash in insecurity and self-doubt, ill at ease even on the “Being John Malkovich” set (a seemingly cinema verite sequence that is actually scripted), Kaufman is virtually scared of his own shadow. Though the writer has an active (and very funny) fantasy life, real-world connections with women are always elusive.

Kaufman is also, no surprise, worried about doing justice to “The Orchid Thief” in his adaptation. “I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing,” he tells studio executive Valerie (Tilda Swinton). “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons.... I mean, the book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”

Things get, if possible, worse for Charlie when he goes home to talk to his twin, Donald, a cheerful, optimistic, not very bright guy who calls Charlie “bro” and is his opposite in all ways, including his ease with women. (“Secretary’s” Maggie Gyllenhaal has a deft cameo as his girlfriend.)

Not only is Donald freeloading in Charlie’s house, he’s decided to become a screenwriter of the most cravenly commercial sort. He has an idea for a multiple-personality serial killer film, and he wants to borrow money from Charlie to take a three-day seminar from McKee in order to maximize his gift.

Entertaining as this is, watching Charlie being overwhelmed by his problems with the script, his brother and his romantic life is only half the film. Alternating with it are scenes from an actual adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” an involving scenario that, among other things, illustrates why the real Kaufman was interested in the project in the first place.

In this part of the film we watch New Yorker writer Orlean (a deliciously amusing Streep in the rare part that makes use of her sense of humor) becoming intrigued by Laroche after reading about him being arrested for poaching a rare ghost orchid in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in the Florida Everglades.

Chris Cooper, best known for playing buttoned-up individuals in films like “Lone Star,” “American Beauty,” “October Sky” and “The Bourne Identity,” makes the most of his opportunity to let it rip with Laroche, whose lack of front teeth only enhances his charisma.

A fast-talking autodidact who throws himself into his interests with a wild enthusiasm that rubs up against madness, Laroche fascinates Orlean because his life is so diametrically opposite from her experience in the enervated Manhattan literary world she inhabits with her husband (an amusing cameo by director Curtis Hanson). “I wanted,” she comes to feel, “to want something as much as people wanted these plants.”

What the film’s Kaufman wants is to make this story fit into a screenplay. At a certain point, aided and abetted by his brother and McKee, he ends up doing all kinds of things to the narrative that allow “Adaptation,” as if it weren’t doing enough already, to devastatingly spoof all the debilitating conventions that characterize the Hollywood system.

Novelists putting themselves into novels a la Philip Roth is not new, and the idea of a film about a screenwriter making things up as he goes along is not unprecedented either. “Paris When It Sizzles,” written by George Axelrod and starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn, did it in 1963,1964, and that was based on an even earlier French film.

None of that takes away from the liberating feeling of madcap originality that is “Adaptation’s” strength. Though Kaufman’s script gently mocks the notion that writing should have something different as its goal, that is what’s been accomplished here.

There may be, as Orlean’s book informs us, 30,000 varieties of orchids in the world, but in the universe of film there’s never been an adaptation quite like the one we have here.

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‘Adaptation’

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images.

Times guidelines: It’s all done in good humor.

Nicolas Cage ... Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman

Meryl Streep ... Susan Orlean

Chris Cooper ... John Laroche

Tilda Swinton ... Valerie

Maggie Gyllenhaal ... Caroline

Brian Cox ... Robert McKee

A Magnet/Clinica Estetica production, in association with Intermedia Films, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Spike Jonze. Producers Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay, Jonathan Demme. Executive producers Charlie Kaufman, Peter Saraf. Screenplay Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, based on the book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean. Cinematographer Lance Acord. Editor Eric Zumbrunnen. Costumes Casey Storm. Music Carter Burwell. Production design KK Barrett. Art director Peter Andrus. Set decorator Gene Serdena. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

In general release.


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