Adaptation.

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Directed by
Spike Jonze
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rating
4.0* /5.0*

How do you turn a book about flowers into a big cinematic success? The answer is simple: you get Charlie Kaufman to do your adaptation. But what if Kaufman himself is struggling to do justice to the source material? Well, then you get something that looks a lot like Adaptation. The Inception of screenwriting, an absurd window into the mind of one of America's greatest screenwriters. A film that is sure to leave you baffled about what you've just witnessed, especially when you're watching it for the first time.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The source of all this weirdness is The Orchid Thief, a book written by New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean. The book is about John Laroche, a rather peculiar horticulturist who got arrested for taking a rare ghost orchid from a Florida state reserve. He did it with the help of a group of Seminole natives, an important caveat as Laroche claimed the Seminole natives were allowed to take flowers out of the state reserve. As Orlean starts warming up to the peculiarities of Laroche, she slowly becomes an integral part of the story.

Adaptation was supposed to be just that, a film adaptation of Orlean's book. It turned out to be something entirely different. I would've loved to have been there when Orlean was reading the script for the very first time, it must've been quite a shock for her. Instead of seeing Laroche and herself rewritten for the big screen, she found herself tucked away inside a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt the book. The Orchid Thief was still there somewhere, but more as a diversion than anything else.

Normally I'm not a big fan of people too wrapped up in their own problems (and a screenwriter writing a script about his own difficulties adapting a book is probably one of the most self-centered scripts that could ever be written), but Kaufman adds a welcome dose of humor that makes it that much more enjoyable. He pokes fun of his own persona, gives himself a fictional brother who's more successful than him and still finds a way to spend some quality time with Laroche and Orlean. The structure might appear messy at first, but multiple viewings reveal a tightly knit script.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The visuals take a bit of a backseat to the narrative. Jonze isn't the most visually inclined director to begin with, but it's clear that the visual aspect was deliberately kept low-key so it wouldn't take too much away from Kaufman's writing spectacle. There is some visual trickery (two onscreen Cages and of course the famous filmed-from-inside car crash, which Adaptation helped popularize) but nothing too special or out of the ordinary. It never looks sloppy or dull either, just a little average.

The score is ultimately forgettable. So much in fact that I had to skip through the film once more while I was writing this review, just to hear what music there was. I can't say I really missed it either and I wouldn't be surprised if Jonze figured that most people would feel the same. Then again, a good soundtrack is always a pre and as time passes by it could've become a great differentiator to keep the film attractive. For now though, I can live with the stylistic choices Jonze made.

Acting-wise I really can't complain. Nicolas Cage is somewhat of a gamble, but his less than charming portrayal of Charlie Kaufman (and brother Donald) is hilarious. Cage eclipses all the other actors, which is quite a feat as Chris Cooper is also giving it his all as Laroche. Even Meryl Streep is okay, though she'll never become a favorite of mine. The secondary cast is nice too, with Keener, Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in notable parts. And if you're the type that loves cameos, you can spot director David O. Russell in a very minor part.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The film's finale is just as genius as it is divisive. I have to admit that it didn't gel with me the first time I watched it, even though I did get the idea behind it. But consecutive viewings left me prepared for what was to come and made it a lot easier to get on board with Kaufman's vision. That doesn't mean it'll work for everyone, but it's a pretty slick and unique twist and a smart take on Kaufman's own struggles. You may even call it prophetic in 2017, as in he end Donald trumps (hah!) Charlie.

Jonze's sober presentation puts Kaufman in the spotlight and looking at the stellar script he wrote that might have been a good call. The acting is top notch too, but having seen the film a couple of times now the novelty has worn off and the somewhat simple presentation does make Adaptation a little less appealing than it could've been. It's still a great film with lots to enjoy and quite a few stand-out moments. People who haven't seen it should definitely try it out, but over time it just got a little less special than it used to be.