Post Millennial Malaise 14: Adaptation

In Which it’s Silence of the Lambs Meets Psycho

In the early part of the 2000’s a certain pall cast over the culture. Cut from the brief moment between the turn of the century and the 9/11 attacks. This short interregnum is the most literal translation of the title of this series. That all the hype for Y2K fizzled out and things continued apace in relatively normal ways. Yes there were ups and downs, but there was also a pervasive sense of “now what?” What is to be made of a world that isn’t radically changed, or at least not yet.

This tonality, of being uncertain and hazy about the current moment, is suffused all over the sophomore effort from both writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. Adaptation is a movie about being unsure, trying to mark a path forward and generally struggling to obtain said path until the most absurd circumstances force the issue. A film that doesn’t know what the future can possibly hold, and is terrified and thrilled at the prospects.

It’s almost a coincidence that Adaptation holds such power, and reflects so perfectly the exact moment it was made. Indeed this could be viewed as a movie about the difficulty of following up success. Jonze and Kaufman made huge waves with their first movie together, getting critical plaudits and a swath of prestigious award nominations. Now these two artists are considered geniuses, people who can create work like nobody else, and that inexorable weight can tear anybody apart, especially if that person is as neurotic as Kaufman.

So what Adaptation is about is itself. A story of beleaguered screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) trying to work out the kinks of adapting Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) The Orchid Thief to the big screen. He wants it to be simple and thoughtful and understanding about the subject, but he can’t quite crack the narrative or characters. John Laroche (Chris Cooper) is a great character, but not big enough of one to hang a story on. Charlie’s efforts are further troubled when his twin brother Donald (also Cage) seems to have an easier time pumping out a rote script that everyone loves. What to do when all artistic instincts turn against you?

What makes Adaptation so remarkable is that it is both an incredible long form joke that doesn’t relent at any moment, and a very thoughtful and considerate insight into the value of the written word and how it impacts one’s life. The balance between these to polarities is never tilted too far one way or another as every serious moment is as funny as the funny moments serious. A deft act of tonal control from both Kaufman and Jonze that allows what should be an incredibly tedious story about the movie biz and artists to blossom into a narrative about what it means to live.

That’s pretty high-falutin trick to pull off, yet pulled off it is. One reason is that the further we’ve gotten into Kaufman’s career the longer we are from the obvious fact that he started off as a primarily comedic force. Yes even his earlier projects get into the whole “what does it mean to be alive” schtick, but there’s still a lot of road to go down before we get to the sheer despondency of Kaufman’s directorial efforts. For all the emotion found in Adaptation, it works so well because it is an engine for surreal jokes and absurdist punch lines. 

Jonze has lines up the best cast possible to deliver these meta bon mots. Cage, after a decade of Hollywood spectacle, gives one of his finest performances here. Honing his off-putting charm into a form of character that is both eye-rolling in his self pity and believable as a person trying to articulate creativity. It also helps that Cage is playing two characters that are similar, but incredibly distinct from each other. The viewer can peg the difference between Charlie and Donald in pure mannerism without even the need for dialog.

Luckily the dialog is also terrific at distinguishing the two and allows for a litany of jokes about the sheer premise of what is presented on screen. Like how Donald starts the movie by scooting around on the floor and dreaming of being a screenwriter. Or when asked about how he will accomplish the identity swapping twist of his thriller The 3 Donald simply replies, “trick photography.” Yes a joke about hooky stories, but also a punch at the exact shot we are looking at, achieved by using trick photography.

This goofy ribbing continues up and down the whole story. From the reverent/satirical take at Robert McKee (an amazing Brian Cox who turns his five minutes on screen into pure gold) to the slowly unraveling reality of Orlean’s relationship to Laroche and flowers. Even as the movie swerves to the ludicrously violent and dramatic it’s still incredibly funny. Streep and Cooper marching around a swamp high on drugs hunting down two Cages is inherently silly even if the premise and the stakes are life and death. That things take such a turn is why its funny in the first place. To see a theoretically real person like Laroche get torn to shred by a gator is by turns horrifying and hilarious.

Yet in this absurdity Kaufman frequently hits upon the truth in grappling with material that is meaningful. He is deeply moved by Orlean’s writing, even if he can’t quite crack the ability to translate what’s written to the screen. As an artist Charlie respects the material he’s been given, and in that way we see a deep well of enamored creatives as they delve into the work of others. Kaufman to Orlean, Orlean to Laroche, Laroche to Charles Darwin, and on and on and on.

So Adaptation wraps around itself to become not a story about adapting a book in and of itself, but the story of finding what moves a creative person. How Kaufman struggles with a script is superficially a yarn of writer’s block and self loathing, but beneath it is a story of trying to grapple with the work of another and give it purpose and meaning in your own way. This turtles all the way down approach is also evident in the ludicrous elements of the story as well. Charlie might at first be dismissive of Donald’s work, but you feel the connection and humanity that Charlie has for his fake twin as he dies in a horrible car wreck. This figment brought forth a creative work. This is presented earlier in the story when Laroche describes to Orlean how he lost his teeth. It’s one of the most terrifying things put to film, the suddenness of an accident forever altering one’s life. It’s traumatic and dramatic, and again demonstrates how one falls into their interests through existence. Whether it be tragedy or circumstance.

That such deliberately heavy moments sit aside such ridiculous comedy only speaks to the tonal mastery that both Kaufman and Jonze have over the material. It speaks so much to the desperate moment after first success and to a world that exists in a fog of the unknown. What’s next in undetermined, but can be created, or found, somewhere, somehow.

Odds and Ends

  • “It’s like technology versus horse.”
  • Much of the cast and crew of Being John Malkovich pop up in the periphery of this movie, and it’s interesting that Jonze (being an actor) never appears on screen.
  • Susan Orlean was at first very hesitant at the movie that came from her book. Especially since the film eventually just makes up a fictitious account of her life as it goes along. She finally relented, and had to admit that it was incredible to be played by Meryl Streep.
  • All of the main cast here is terrific. Streep is unordered in a manner that is both believable as a person, and an amusing riff on her persona as always playing a part. Orleans is both real and fake in equal measure to a great degree. Cooper rightly deserves his Oscar win as a man who should be tedious, but is ultimately moving. If it were possible I would invent a sub-category to give Cox an award as well, his five minutes are beyond perfect.
  • This would be the last time Jonze and Kaufman worked together. I can’t begrudge either in the split because great work was to come for both, but I would love to see them collaborate again.
  • If I had to make a roadmap I would say this marks the beginning of the end of Cage as serious performer. Yes their’s enjoyable material down the road that still has the sheen of prestige (The Weather Man, Matchstick Men, Lord of War) but we are swiftly approaching the meme era of the actor that basically continues to this day.
  • Oh look it’s Tilda Swinton again. She has a small part, but it’s fun that she gets to keep her accent in an American movie. 

Next Week: We close out our Kaufman double feature with the heart wrenching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.