"I had to adapt to being an adaptor," Charlie Kaufman has said about his script for Adaptation, which may not win for Best Original Screenplay on Oscar night but would surely win for Most Original Screenplay if there were such a category. One of those snake-eating-its-own-tail movies, Adaptation is the result of Kaufman's attempt to turn Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief into a script. This is the guy who cooked up the whole idea of Being John Malkovich, so adapting Orlean's book ' an impressionistic profile of a criminally passionate plant collector ' should have been a cinch, despite the book's lack of a narrative spine. Instead, it was a nightmare. Kaufman, determined to be faithful to the book and equally determined to avoid Hollywood clichÃs, became hopelessly blocked. Then he had an idea: Why not fold his attempt to adapt the book into the movie itself and call it Adaptation? Why not swallow his own tale?
Why not, indeed? Postmodernists all over the world must be shedding tears of deconstructive joy. Instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, we get An Author in Search of Six Characters ' well, four. And they are, in order of appearance: Charlie Kaufman, as portrayed by Nicolas Cage; Charlie's identical twin brother, Donald, as portrayed by Nicolas Cage; Susan Orlean, as portrayed by Meryl Streep; and John Laroche, the orchid thief, as portrayed by Chris Cooper. That Charlie Kaufman has no twin brother in real life shouldn't prevent us from enjoying one of the great twin performances of all time. (Cage, suddenly a wild and crazy actor again, endows each brother with his own not-quite-unique mannerisms.) And that the real Susan Orlean didn't do half the things she does in this movie shouldn't concern us at all unless we are Susan Orlean, in which case we should call our lawyer.
What should concern us are the pair of storylines, Charlie's and Susan's, which take turns wooing us, like the stanzas of a long poem ' an unutterably sad poem about passion and creativity and eccentricity and loneliness and self-loathing and sticking out and fitting in and learning how to adapt to one's circumstances. Cage's Charlie is one of those people who seem trapped in their own bodies. Preternaturally slouchy, he always looks like he's been up all night, which he probably has been. And his thoughts, which he shares with us via voice-over narration, are a slippery slide down the stream of consciousness. The thing is, Charlie's also a bona-fide artist, with artistic principles, most of them involving not selling out to Hollywood. And I repeat: This was the guy who cooked up Being John Malkovich. So, we're left asking ourselves: Is he weirdly principled or principally weird?
Donald is Charlie's doppelganger. His balding pate has the same corona of frizz, but he wears it like a crown; and, unlike Charlie, he has a way with the women. Early on in the movie, Donald decides to try his luck at writing a script, and his glide up the ladder of success is supposed to be a rebuke to Charlie's high-art pretensions. As if blessed by God, Donald is too average to know how average he is, whereas Charlie is crippled by self-doubt. Like most of us, he hopes he's special but fears he's average. "Do I have an original thought in my head, my balding head?" he asks himself, and Adaptation is supposed to be the answer to that question, a resounding yes/no/maybe that will leave some viewers applauding, some viewers booing and other viewers scratching their heads. Having pondered the movie for the last 24 hours or so, I must confess that I'm still doing all three.
One of the things I keep getting hung up on is that Cooper's Laroche is such a fascinating character. Obviously, a movie could have been built around him, which means that Kaufman's problem had less to do with adapting The Orchid Thief than with adapting anything. He's a purist, which is a form of self-indulgence. Still, the scenes between Laroche and Orlean ' early on, anyway ' are wonderfully playful, as their love affair germinates and blooms. Laroche is a bizarre hybrid, a swamp rat who has succumbed to what the Victorians called orchidelirium. And he's not above removing a rare specimen from the Florida Everglades if he thinks it's for a good cause, namely his own. As for Streep's Orlean, her life has started to drift a little. With no passions of her own, she develops one for Laroche's passion ' not for orchids, but for Laroche's passion for orchids. She's in love with love.
Cooper and Streep's scenes together have a nice opposites-attract tug, Ã la The African Queen. And Streep may never have seemed so radiant, so ripe for picking. But Adaptation has many, many more things on its mind than romance. It wants to be both a movie about art and life and passion and a movie about a movie about art and life and passion. And to its credit, it succeeds, albeit at a price, which is that we're not as passionate about the movie as we might have been. Director Spike Jonze, who turned Kaufman's Malkovich script into a living, breathing movie, takes a two-pronged approach, keeping everything as naturalistic as possible then allowing the movie to spontaneously combust. "How'd I get here?" Charlie asks in a moment of cosmic soul-searching, and Jonze immediately plunges us into a 40-second tour of the last 40 billion years of life on Planet Earth.
That's a rather puerile thing to do, and the movie, from certain angles, seems almost too clever for its own good. What saves it from the charge of preciousness is that there are so many angles to look at it from. Other movies hold up mirrors to the way we live our lives. Adaptation holds a mirror up to those mirrors, and if you aren't careful you could lose yourself in its infinite reflections. Which is a pretty good argument for seeing it again...and again.