Adaptation (15)

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Review byMatthew Turner24/02/2003

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 114 mins

Dazzlingly brilliant, extremely witty film from the creative team behind Being John Malkovich, with not one but TWO superb performances from Nicolas Cage.

The gloriously off-the-wall, full-on weirdness that was Being John Malkovich heralded the arrival of two prestigious new talents – director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Adaptation is their second collaboration and, while it’s slightly less surreal, it’s no less brilliant, with terrific, deservedly Oscar nominated performances from its cast.

Based On A True Story Based On A Novel…

The film is effectively based on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s experiences with writer’s block after he was hired to adapt real-life journalist Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief into a movie. The names, however, remain unchanged, even down to the studio executives who played a part in setting up the film – reputedly, Orlean was fine with the basic idea, though didn’t initially want her real name used, until she was persuaded that everyone else was doing it too.

Nicolas Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald, who also wants to be a screenwriter and who represents everything Charlie hates about the ‘conventional wisdom’ of Hollywood scripts. Charlie is introverted and sees himself as fat, balding and socially inept, whereas Donald is a bit dim, but super-confident and not above using his wannabe screenwriter status to pull pretty girls (such as The Lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the set of Being John Malkovich, much to Charlie’s shame.

As the film progresses and Charlie accepts his assignment, it gradually becomes clear that Adaptation is the script he’s writing. Thus, scenes of Charlie’s life (both real and fantasy – there’s an awful lot of masturbation in the film, both ‘real’ and metaphorical) are interspersed with scenes from Orlean’s novel, with Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as John Laroche, the orchid thief himself. Eventually, the two storylines will collide, with dubious results…

Cage Acts Out Of Both His Skins

The acting is terrific – Cage, in particular is as good here as he’s ever been and fully deserves his recent Oscar nomination. His dual performances are so good that he makes you actually believe there are two of him on screen and his sweaty, neurotic portrayal of Charlie is a performance that’s completely free of vanity.

He’s also given excellent support by his co-stars, particularly Cooper as the colourful Laroche, but also Streep, who’s really rather wonderful here – watch for her scene with the ring-tone of the phone. There are also a number of amusing cameos, not least by the members of the cast of Being John Malkovich, and Brian Cox has fun playing screenwriting ‘guru’ Robert McKee, whose “principles” Donald quotes ad infinitum and who Charlie is eventually persuaded to seek out for help.

The script is devilishly clever and extremely witty – Kaufman excels at creating comic characters. He also beautifully captures the frustration of writing, from insomnia, to procrastination, to the agony of being interrupted mid-flow. He has also, cunningly pre-empted any criticism of the central idea (writing himself into his own script) by having “himself” voice all the possible responses – “It’s solipsistic, it’s narcissistic, it’s pathetic…”, Cage complains.

However, though the film is undeniably brilliant for the first 90 minutes, it falls apart in the final act. It would be unfair to explain exactly how, but suffice it to say that the ending is almost certainly meant to be disappointing and that that’s kind of the point. It makes sense within the film and is, in that sense, logical, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a letdown. (Having said that, on second viewing, one is much more inclined to forgive and accept the ending.) At any rate, it’s certain to divide audiences and ensure the film becomes one of those movies that is endlessly discussed in the pub afterwards.

In short, this is definitely worth seeing – it’s a brilliantly acted, extremely clever (perhaps too clever), multi-layered film that will repay several viewings. The scriptwriting Oscar would appear to be in the bag, too – let’s hope so, anyway, because both Charlie and “Donald” are nominated. Highly recommended.

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Adaptation (15)
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Content updated: 26/09/2015 08:26

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