(director: Spike Jonze; screenwriters: Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman, based on the book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean; cinematographer: Lance Acord; editor: Eric Zumbrunnen; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Nicolas Cage (Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman), Meryl Streep (Susan Orlean), Chris Cooper (John Laroche), Tilda Swinton (Valerie), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Caroline), Brian Cox (Robert McKee), Jay Tavare (Matthew Osceola), Ron Livingston (Marty), Judy Greer (Alice the Waitress), Cara Seymour (Amelia); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Edward Saxon/Vincent Landay/Jonathan Demme; Columbia Pictures; 2002)


An intelligent pic for those who are impressed that the filmmaker didn’t dumb the odd story down until the last 20 minutes.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and Director Spike Jonze, the team responsible for the acclaimed Being John Malkovich, have teamed up on another quirky comedy. “Adaptation” is a witty anti-Hollywood Hollywood film. It’s an unconventional one spoofing the hand that feeds it, but also throwing enough bouquets Hollywood’s way so as not to get on its bad side. Most of the film which is about the travails of writing a script is very funny, but there’s a breakdown in the “third act” as it veers off the back road with a formulaic nod to the way a Hollywood film would end. The film gets derailed at that point in the middle of nowhere, as it wrestles with itself as a self-reflective exercise about the thin line separating reality from fantasy. Nevertheless, it was a fun film experience and the zany plot line and the playfulness of the characters kept me guessing at what’s next while it kept me excited about its originality and the daring way it attempted to come up with a successful script. It reminded me of a Woody Allen film but one that’s far more sophisticated and has more on its plate than Woody ever had.

A suffering for his art neurotic writer named Charlie Kaufman, the real-life screenwriter Kaufman, given to endlessly talking to himself about his insecurities, has taken on the task of adapting a nonfiction bestselling book by Susan Orlean entitled The Orchid Thief that first appeared in the New Yorker magazine, but he can’t get the handle on how to turn it into a movie and as a result has developed writer’s block as he sits before his typewriter and fantasizes about women he can’t get up enough nerve to date. In the opening scene he quizzically asks himself, “Do I have an original thought in my head?” He also has an imaginary identical twin brother named Donald with whom he seamlessly appears on screen together (both are played by Nicolas Cage & the film goes so far as to give Donald a screenplay co-credit), who is his opposite in personality and is a hack writer.

The title is derived from the double meaning of Kaufman adapting the book into a screenplay and through the film’s subplot subject — the process of evolution in the plant world of the mutable orchids. I guess it could also refer to anyone adapting to this cruel world in a successful manner.

The Orchid Thief is based on the true story of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an eccentric, self-assured nonstop talking con man with poor personal hygiene who is charmingly missing his front teeth. He’s a Florida redneck who gets arrested as a poacher of a rare ghost orchid in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in the Florida Everglades, as he gets a few Seminole cohorts to carry out four bags stuffed with protected rare flowers. He brazenly knows the Native Americans who pulled off the job can’t be prosecuted for that crime according to law. Orlean (Meryl Streep) reads about him and decides to visit and see if she can write his story, and while doing it gets romantically attracted because of his passion for what he’s doing and because he’s so sure of who he is and is so different from the sophisticated New Yorkers the inwardly saddened woman knows. Her bizarre romance plays into the film’s theme about the narrow line separating reality and fantasy. This is a comical part for Streep, who shines in this giddy role as she brings the right devilish charm to it. There are other real people in the film whom Kaufman fictionalizes to a certain degree, like his agent Marty (Livingston); the studio producer who hired him, Valerie (Swinton); and, in an amusing role, the screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) who roars out a reply to Charlie attending his seminar about how to write a script and tells him in no uncertain terms to never use a voice-over in a film because it’s a sign of weakness (of course, this film is filled with voiceovers). It’s a seminar attended by Charlie when he feels his situation has become desperate, and this is after he shows nothing but contempt for McKee to his brother but now is reduced to begging him for help. As for Donald, he gets everything he wants from Hollywood– he even picks up the sexy makeup gal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the set of Being John Malkovich where the real Malkovich is present and she becomes his live-in girlfriend. Donald’s bro is also on the set and is not respected for being a screenwriter and removes himself from the set to have a nervous breakdown that he relates to the ‘big bang’ theory some 4 billion years ago. The flashback brings him forward from the origins of life to the point where he’s now lunching with the movie producer who has hired him to write the script for the orchid story even after he tells her he doesn’t want to make a Hollywood type of film.

The novel idea of the film is that it incorporates a script about a script that a real writer is having trouble writing and gives the viewer a first-hand look at the creative process a screenwriter goes through. Kaufman finds that most of Orlean’s book is about the love shown for the orchids but there’s no story there for him to tell, and he’s fearful of inventing too much and ruining the heartfelt author’s story. He’s also developed a crush on Orlean but is too timid to act upon it. The lesson here is that the heart of any good film starts with a solid script, which is the argument Charlie is waging for all the studios in Hollywood to consider.

Most of the film is effectively accomplished in a highly polished cinematic fashion by going back and forth between different time periods to follow the events leading up to the present and it also includes a voice-over, where Kaufman in a steady stream of consciousness is expressing all his neurotic fears about romancing women, his identity, and creative writing. The always cheerful and optimistic and shallow Donald is meanwhile freeloading in Charlie’s house and has suddenly decided to become a screenwriter of crass commercial films, unlike his genius brother who considers his work as an art form. He has just taken a three-day seminar from McKee in order to get the formulaic writing structure down pat and is writing a much used plotline for his multiple-personality serial killer film. He calls the film “The 3,” and borrows Charlie’s idea of the killer chopping up chunks of his victim. That suggestion was something Charlie meant as a tasteless joke, but Donald is not concerned with taste and doesn’t hesitate to use it. When Charlie submits the script to his agent it is deemed a winner and negotiations are on the way for selling it for six figures.

This unique and imaginative film opens itself up as a good conversation piece over cocktails. It seems to have a little on its plate for everybody, which in my opinion includes a wider audience than just an arthouse one. The film is best when it is aimlessly wandering off into the swampland and discovering how strange the world is without trying to clean the script up. Jonze has a good ear for comedy and for keeping the chaos going in an affecting way. An intelligent pic for those who are impressed that the filmmaker didn’t dumb the odd story down until the last 20 minutes.

REVIEWED ON 1/26/2003 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”