Adaptation

Adaptation

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

However well received the final result may be, writers wrestle with demons to hide the fear that eats their souls. Charlie Kaufman has stopped pretending. He comes out with it - the creative life is purgatory.

Instead of adapting New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean's non-fiction best seller, The Orchid Thief, for the screen, as producer Ed Saxon asked him to, he has delivered an extraordinary piece of work, which is mostly about a balding, fat, self-loathing scriptwriter making a complete hash of it.

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He observes Nicolas Cage playing himself, as he fails with girls, suffers the infliction of his twin brother Donald's casual success with anything and anyone he puts his hand to and tortures himself with erotic fantasies involving the author, who, in his script, is having similar feelings for the subject of her book, John Laroche.

It's absolutely mad and exhilaratingly daring. Kaufman's first collaboration with director Spike Jonze was in Being John Malkovich, a bizarre comedy about a puppeteer who discovers a portal into Malkovich's head. Adaptation breaks more rules and goes further into that chasm where writers fight their demons. He sends back progress reports in the form of voice-over thought bubbles.

He mixes real life with imaginary life, invented characters with actors playing living people, present time with past time, in a way that should end in chaos. It doesn't, although, briefly, after an hour and a half, he loses control and melodrama barges through. His script is like a rollercoaster. Once you strap yourself in, there's nowhere to go but with it.

Cage demonstrates the art of the doppleganger with unerring skill. Charlie is so shy and troubled, even sharing an elevator with someone else is an agony, while Donald has a natural ease with people. Their scenes together are further evidence of Cage's multifaceted talent.

Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean with such intelligence and flair, you feel like showering her with adjectives. But that would be too obvious, almost predictable, in a movie that feeds off the unexpected. Her presence provides an anchor to the safety of the known world.

Chris Cooper, as John Laroche, has the freedom to reach out to an expansive personality, who has the confidence of an eccentric and the obsession of a romantic. This is not his usual role - remember him as the ex-Marine colonel in American Beauty? Here, he leaps at the chance to let his hair down.

This is a film of true originality, born of despair, that would never have seen the light of a projector's box if it wasn't for men like Jonze and Saxon, who keep the independent flag flying in Hollywood.

It is a triumph of courage over conformity.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2003
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Adaptation packshot
A writer wrestles with his demons - and his twin - as he tries to adapt a book for the big screen.
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Director: Spike Jonze

Writer: Charlie Kaufman, based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Year: 2002

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

Being John Malkovich