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Non-Review Review: Adaptation

I sit down. I stare at the screen. I have to write a review. I probably shouldn’t. What do I say? I mean, do I get the film, do I understand it? It’s all very meta-fictional and heavy, a little too meta-fictional perhaps. I pause. Did I just type the words “a little too meta-fictional”? I read back up a line. I did. I sigh. Reviewing Charlie Kaufman is hard work. Reviewing Adaptation is really hard. Why can’t I review something simple, you know with gunfights and car chases and a standard three-act structure? Yeah, something bland, something boring.

Hm. I could really use a line break here.

I could make a pun about brothers here, but that's a bit trite, isn't it?

Yeah. Like that. It was really comfortable. A bit of space. So what do I start with? A synopsis? That’s a little bland, isn’t it? I might as well end with a trite phrase like stating the movie is “highly recommenced” or such. I mean, everyone starts with a synopsis. It’s a little predictable. This movie isn’t about being predictable. It’s like out there – streams of thought and consciousness. But structured. Very structured. You know in the movie when everyone tells Charlie that his fictional brother is “good on structure”? That implies that Charlie’s not too hot on it, which he is. Better than this anyway.

So it’s big. We open this review with me sitting down. I’m staring at the screen. You see? It’s recursive. Like the film. Except the film’s smarter. It has Charlie Kaufman getting a job, to write a script. You see, he’s writing this script. To this movie. Except it’s not this script. It’s The Orchid Thief. But how do you adapt a book like that? It’s filled with all sorts of crazy diversions and never really says anything. It doesn’t have a plot so much as exist as a bunch of anecdotes. Like stream of consciousness. Yeah, I get it.

Nick Cage plays Charlie. Should I call him “Nick”? Does it sound like I’m trying to be a little too comfortable? I don’t know. Should I mention that this was a film he made in the dry spells. I don’t think so – I don’t want to cheapen the integrity of this review by making lowbrow jokes at the expense of films like Next or Ghost Rider or that one with the pedophile aliens in leather jackets. What was that one called? I don’t know. anyway, he’s a good actor – we just forget that, you know. Sure, he interspersed his films with low-key dramatic roles like Family Man or The Weather Man. Didn’t they used that really cool song to advertise Family Man? “Watching the days go by…” and all that? I love that song.

Anyway, Charlie’s trying to be true to his art. He doesn’t want to make the film into just another one of those thoughtless adaptations. He wants it to reflect life. Not “life” life, but his life, my life, your life. Life where nothing happens. Meanwhile his totally fictional brother Donald – also played by Cage (did they have to pay him twice? I don’t know, I’d be happy to be paid once) – decides to become a screenwriter with much better results. He’s very good with structure. And he’s better at it than Charlie, you know – which is crazy. Anyway, Donald is the first fictional person to be nominated for an Oscar. I mean, pseudonyms are common, but he’s a completely invented person, you know? But this is kind of a tangent, don’t you think?

Anyway, it’s all like crazy and epic and fantastic, but I don’t want to undersell it. Like, I don’t want you to think that this is just another review where I’m loading on the praise cause that’s how reviews are, y’know. It’s genuinely clever and smart and out there. It’s like he’s writing the movie as you watch it, which is all kinds of clever, isn’t it? Man, I wish I were clever. I’m just a reviewer. I just have these crazy opinions, you know, and best I can do is steal a little improvisation. Except it’s much better at it than I am.

It’s the kinda thing you can sit up all night and think about and it’s cleverly put together. Like, the moment Charlie asks his brother Donald (who has written a totally bogus script which is going to sell for like $1.5m) to help him out, then the move gets all linear and generic and focused. It has like a climax and an arc and all that conventional stuff. Drugs! Affairs! Murder! It starts making perfect sense instead of being a chaotic jumble of random thoughts.

The write stuff...

Director Spike Jonze, who worked with writer Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich, handles the material wonderfully. He also has a wonderful supporting cast in Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. All three principle actors received Oscar nominations, and Cooper in fact won. I won’t say that he was a shoo-in, but he’s very good. Check out early supporting roles for Maggi Gyllenhaal and Ron Livingstone among others. Everything about the film is cleverly put together.

Still, I can’t help but observe that it’s somewhat easier to appreciate than engage with. It’s a gloriously clever concept and it’s well executed, but the fact that everything is being so carefully orchestrated means that you’re also on the look out for the next clever conceit. That said, it’s a minor complaint – this is the type of originality that Hollywood would do well to offer with more regularity.

As an aside, I kinda wonder what Susan Orleans makes of the movie’s climax which (while obviously venturing into the realm of fiction) portrays her in a rather… sensationalist manner. Apparently she wasn’t initially pleased (although she did eventually come around).

Adaptation is a great film, clever and well-made, and dripping with feelings that are familiar to anybody who has ever attempted to set pen to paper. It’s a wonderfully surrealist look at the insecure mindset of an author, and perhaps the most honest look at the creative process that I can remember in celluloid. Adaptation is highly recommended.

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