Movie Review

Adaptation

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

Reviewed by: Megan Basham
CONTRIBUTOR

Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Drama / Comedy
Length:
2 hrs.
Relevant Issues
Poster art for “Adaptation”

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour | Directed by: Spike Jonze | Produced by: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay | Written by: Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman, Susan Orlean | Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Though you may not have heard much about “Adaptation” yet, odds are you will when it inevitably secures an Oscar nomination next February. The brainchild of indie dream team director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman (the duo responsible for “Being John Malkovich”), the film picks up in Charlie’s life where Malkovich left off. So far it has received the highest recommendation from big guns like Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, and even has some Christian critics offering it cautious praise, despite brief nudity and a couple sexual situations. While I agree with them that “Adaptation” is at the very least an original approach to story-telling, its clever maneuverings don’t make up for its unfulfilled promise of profundity, or for the way the story betrays itself in the last half of the film.

Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in “Adaptation”“Adaptation” tells the half-true/half-fiction story of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a screenwriter who, high off his success for “Being John Malkovich”, has been recruited to adapt a sprawling, sensitive novel titled “The Orchid Thief”. Inspired by the words of the Orchid Thief’s author (Meryl Streep), Charlie vows to write a screenplay as perceptive and authentic as the work he is adapting. Unfortunately, he’s besieged by doubt about his abilities as a writer. While he despises everything commercial in Hollywood, his encounter with a true work of art leaves him quivering at the possibility that he may, in fact, be the very thing he reviles most—namely, a hack. To make matters worse, his simple-minded twin-brother Donald (whose previous existence was apparently that of a sponge) decides to write his own pandering screenplay, which he quickly sells for a million dollars. While in real life Kaufman doesn’t have a brother, here the character obviously provides Charlie an alter-ego, the what-if should he decide to finally chuck all his ambitions for artistic integrity and just give the audience the car-chases and sex scenes they want.

Pretty brilliant sounding construction, right? And it is. Certainly as a writer and sometime neurotic, I was fully engaged by Kaufman’s struggle with self-doubt. Any one of us who has ever attempted to say something on paper has worried that we may be publicly revealed for the insecure, shallow-thinkers that we are. Or worse, that the public won’t even find our trivial little passions interesting. So, for a while it looked like “Adaptation” might provide the humorous, illuminating window into the writer’s soul alluded to in its trailers. Then I guess Kaufman got lazy, because in a bizarre turn of plot, he tacks on a disjointed ending that feels totally irrelevant and disloyal to the whole. The entire struggle between artistry and commercialism becomes one big joke on the audience as Kaufman ends his movie with everything his character condemned in the first place—a car chase, a steamy sex scene, an attempted murder, a gruesome death, and even drug running.

According to the film, adaptation is the process of an organism changing to become more compatible with its environment. And while this is apparently supposed to be a metaphor for the individual journeys of the characters, it’s an inappropriate choice as, instead of moving forward, each person regresses more and more into a state of depressing self-obsession leading to ever-greater self-destruction. At first, Charlie’s overly self-conscious and pseudo-intellectual crises are hilarious as we recognize the same tendencies in ourselves. And so we too feel his longing when he is so touched by a book that it seems it may be the catalyst to drive him out of his narcissistic lifestyle. That is until Kaufman reveals the punchline—that even after enlightenment, life is still cheap and dirty, and I realize I’ve spent two hours watching he and Jonze try to prove how much smarter they are than me.

Genuine art is not just a trick of mind-bending innovation nor a foray into some perversion never before explored; rather, it is the revelation of truth and beauty. Or, maybe Jonze and Kaufman are right. Maybe the ideas of art and life-changing moments of clarity really are just one big joke, but if so, I wouldn’t pay another eight bucks to be the butt of it.

Year of Release—2002

Viewer Comments
DISCUSSION:
  1. Often what reviewers are looking for in a film is novelty, a new way of presenting an old issue. However, for a film to improve the human condition and enrich our lives it can’t only be brilliant in some new limited way, but enlighten us spiritually and socially. Why do you think this film chose to portray such empty lives? Do you believe it is presenting the truth about the lives of those who are seeking to write and act in our films and on stage, or is this a distorted presentation?
  2. When you consider the impact others have on your life, how do you decide with whom you will spend your time? Is there a benefit from spending time with those who need your friendship to enrich their lives? If friendship is reciprocal what would we expect to happen in such relationships?
  3. It has been found that the greatest predictor of drug use is having a best friend who uses drugs. If this is true in this one area is it also true in others? How impactful is our choice of best friends?

—Denny and Hal, CinemainFocus.com

Positive—I thought this film was great. An easy way to tell is if your awe of the picture grows and grows during the days that follow. That is what this film has done to me. At first, as with last year’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” it takes a little while for things to sink in. They are films that are quirky and witty in one moment, and sad and heartbreaking the next. It takes a little while to compute all of this information, but after you have, your appreciation will grow. I look forward to watching this film again, because I know it will be even better. The film has the top three things going for it. Great writing, acting, and directing. Nicolas Cage does the best work of his career in this film, and he will be nominated. He shares one of the film’s best scenes with… well, himself. And Chris Cooper (who should have been nominated for his role in 1999’s “American Beauty”) will surely be nominated, and will likely win. He plays John Laroche, whom the book, “The Orchid Thief” is about. He is a very big surprise. When we first see him, we think we know everything there is to know about him. Then, we find out how horribly wrong we are in possibly the film’s most powerful scene. I haven’t even mentioned Meryl Streep, who (this is getting old, I’m sure) will also be nominated for an Oscar. I don’t know if I liked “Adaptation” as much as “Being John Malkovich,” the other Spike Jonze film. I think a second viewing will be required. I understand what the reviewer means when he says that there was a lack of profundity. It’s really more of an epiphany for Charlie Kaufman. I did not think he departed from his film in the last half. I think it simply took a very wild turn, a turn that I kind of liked. As for the content of the film, yes, it does have brief nudity and some sexual content. There is some foul language, but it doesn’t bombard the viewer, or, at least, it didn’t bombard me. I really think that “Adaptation” is one of the best films of 2002.
My Ratings: [Average / 5]
—Jason Eaken, age 19
Negative—Yuck! I thought this movie was a big flop and really disappointing! I will be honest and say that the beginning was quite interesting—it possessed a lot of possibility, and I was curious to see where the plot was leading the audience; it didn’t lead them anywhere, really. There were plenty of colorful characters, no doubt about that, and there was a fair amount of humor, but I find that the average Christian and even non-Chrisian would be offended by some of the material. I was particularly disgusted with the main character’s frequent bouts of self-pleasure while fantasizing about different women. It was degrading to the women and to himself. I really shouldn’t have been surprised about the revolting moments of the movie though—as Christians, we make conscious decisions whether or not to see these movies. We know that movies are made by worldly standards and not Godly ones. I did see the “R” rating, but dared it anyway. “Adaptation” was really lacking, though, and I found it messy and irritating at other times. Go see “The Two Towers” instead.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3]
—Amber, age 22
Positive—What a wonderful film. My take on “offensive” is likely to be different than most others on this site… “Adaptation” is bathed in absolute brilliance in every scene, every performance, every concept. If more films were this original, the world would be a much happier place. Special kudos to Meryl Streep, who creates a character of unexpected surprises, to Mr. Cage for finally getting away from big budget action nonsense, and of course, to the director and screen writer, for matching the beauty of their other marvelous film, “Being John Malcovich.” In 20 years, these will be the films we remember from this era.
My Ratings: [5]
—Peter Weets, age 33
…So is there a moral to Charlie Kaufman’s story? Well, it would be that life is never simple and is more often pointless than pithy. After all, that was what attracted Kaufman to the book “The Orchid Thief”. Here was a chance to avoid the boy-meets-girl cliché, the protagonist who is profoundly changed, three acts and a car chase. But ultimately, it is formula and cliché that Kaufman falls back upon to make his script work. And that is—in the last analysis—what makes the movie “Adaptation” work. No matter how sardonically it is employed, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is realized, it is symmetry and structure that keeps this movie from being anything more than a hodge podge of meaningless bits and pieces. Without the superimposition of the screenwriter as protagonist, the invention of an alter ego named Donald and a trumped up fantasy ending, Kaufman admits that “The Orchid Thief” can never be a satisfying motion picture. Which I suppose is the telling thing about most post modern cinema. It succeeds in making us scratch our collective heads. It reminds us life rarely has a point. It even, in some backhanded fashion, encourages us to tough it out and muddle through. But it rarely satisfies. The problem is, we post moderns—like every other generation—were born with hearts that yearn for meaning. We are souls that seek to be the part of something bigger. We pay our six bucks and we want to sit on the edge of our seats, occasionally grab our hankies, and wind up with a nice, happy ending. The boy gets the girl. The good guy gets away. The bad guy gets what’s coming to him. And we all live happily ever after. Hollywood knows that’s what we want. Kaufman knows that’s what we want. Wait a minute, that reminds me of this book I’ve been reading. It starts with this man and woman poaching outlawed fruit in a protected garden… Maybe someone could turn it into a motion picture screenplay… Nah, on second thought, it will never work. I just remembered—the ending is way too pat.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 3]
—Artie Megibben