Remember a time when Nicolas Cage consistently starred in great film? me neither, although I to be fair I wasn’t alive when his career was at it’s highest point during the 80s and 90s. Based on his performances I would describe Cage as a very talented lunatic who can dive head first into all out camp or occasionally dabble in more serious work with Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Joe (2013), Matchstick Men (2003) and The Wicker Man (2006), (I’m joking with that last one).
His two performances in Adaptation seem to go along with Cage’s serious and sentimental side, I think his work in this film ranks among his best work. Above I wrote performances in plural and this wasn’t a mistake with my grammar (although I am prone to the odd mishap), Cage does indeed play two characters and they happen to be twins, one named Charlie and the other Donald, despite looking identical the brothers have two completely different personalities.
Charlie is filled with anxiety and worry to the point where it basically crumbles his life, he is struggling to adapt a book ‘The Orchid Thief’ into a film screenplay. Donald on the other hand is a laid back dude who takes life in his stride, he doesn’t seem to have any insecurities and his care free approach often drives Charlie insane.
The opening scene catches Charlie right in the middle of worry and anxiety, sweat is dripping down his forehead and his chances of starting the new screenplay are extremely low. Charlie procrastinates to the point where ends up not getting any writing done, all of Charlie’s thoughts are communicated through voiceover which does a great job at expressing Charlie’s low self-esteem.
Adaptation was directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, the two successfully collaborated on Being John Malkovich 3 years earlier. I like ‘Being John Malkovich although I feel it is a bit overrated, on the other hand my feelings for Adaptation are a lot more clear. The film combines Kaufman’s unstructured and unique writing style with a wonderful sense of humour and sentimentality that feels genuine, I would call the film a masterpiece.
Back to the story, the pressure is on the fictional Kaufman to produce some sort of draft for his script, his deadline with Columbia Pictures has already expired and he frequently receives phone calls from his agent who is looking for an update on his progress.
Charlie slowly begins to realise the difficulty of the task ahead of him, the book itself appears to be unadaptable for the big screen and Kaufman consults his agent on the possibility of abandoning the project although he is told this would be wrong option for his career.
The unemployed Donald decides to copy his brother and take a stab at writing his first screenplay, he of course seems to breeze through it. Donald attends a seminar from famed story consultant and screenwriter Robert McKee (Brian Cox) and in a matter of days he has already produced a spec script named ‘The 3’. He asks Charlie for feedback on what he has written although the review is not positive.
The writing is clichéd, predictable and downright incoherent although everyone besides Charlie seems to love it. The rights to the script are purchased by a major studio and Donald is hailed as a genius, Charlie is perplexed. The story frequently cuts between Charlie and the author of The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep).
The main subject of her book is a man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper) and we see Susan meeting him for the first time. She is immediately captivated by his childlike view of the world’s beauty, John has an obsession with collecting flowers more specifically orchids and his knowledge of them is vast. At first their relationship is a bit awkward still over time John and Susan grow much closer.
Like Charlie, Susan’s story relies on voiceover to explain her inner thoughts and feelings, the film uses this to transition from Susan into Charlie reading the same lines in her book. It is also becomes clear through her writing that Susan is a lonely and unhappy person despite her successful journalism career and marriage.
Chris Cooper won an academy award for his performance as John and I think this is deserved, he is the type of character who is easy to judge based purely on his looks. John is scruffily dressed with all of his front teeth missing, John also isn’t the most eloquently spoken and he looks like he hasn’t washed in months, although John doesn’t seem to care one bit.
The more time we spend with John we learn of his tragic backstory and how he basically lost his family, career and almost his own life. A theme that seems to run through all of the main characters in Adaptation is loneliness.
Susan and John connect through their shared loneliness, Charlie clearly lives a very disconnected life and he constantly berates himself at his lack of courage to tell Amelia (Cara Seymour) his true feelings. The only character who isn’t lonely and depressed is Donald which isn’t a surprise to be honest.
Adaptation features strong performances from all of it’s cast although I think Nicolas Cage steals the film, his portrayal of Charlie demonstrates his ability to play a flawed and insecure character that is also very relatable. Donald on the other hand is confident and assured, Cage is pretty darn good in both roles and find the scenes featuring both characters to be quite funny.
Charlie eventually decides to travel to New York to meet Susan and discuss the book, yet due to crippling anxiety he is unable to go through with it. Instead Charlie decides to attend a seminar by Robert McKee, the scene itself is hilarious featuring an over the top performance from Brian Cox, after the seminar Charlie seeks advice from McKee which doesn’t really go anywhere.
After learning nothing from McKee, Charlie phones up Donald and asks him to come to New York and talk to Susan, Donald accepts the offer and joins Charlie in New York. Donald confidently walks into Susan’s New Yorker office under the ruse as a journalist, he interviews Susan about about her relationship with John, her career and her religious beliefs (for some reason, don’t ask me).
The interview is really awkward and seemingly pointless although Donald is convinced Susan is up to something suspicious, at first Charlie doesn’t believe him yet the two of them still pursue her. They follow Susan back to a quiet house where she meets up with John, Charlie sneaks up to the house while Donald waits back in the car. Charlie discovers a conservatory filled with drugs as well as seeing John and Susan having sex, he inevitably gets caught by John and this sets up the final act.
The third act of Adaptation turns into a mini action film with John and Susan pursuing the twins whilst being half baked and little drunk, I also love the emotional scene between Charlie and Donald in the swamp where the two brothers open up to each other. The third act takes some unexpected twists and turns and it concludes with a huge sucker punch for the audience.
The film still manages to end on a happy note with everything working out just fine, I particularly enjoy the use of The Turtles ‘Happy Together’ which accompanies the final shot.
I guess that’s why I love the real Charlie Kaufman’s work so much, even though this film was directed by Spike Jonze. Kaufman’s fingerprints are found everywhere. From relatable and flawed characters to the unexpected twists in the plot, Kaufman’s work feels truly original and I find it a huge shame his career has never really taken off.
You have probably guessed by know that I love this film so of course I’m going to recommend you see it, just be wary Adaptation isn’t a conventional film so expect the unexpected. I always like to champion films that are different and this and the rest of Charlie Kaufman’s work are perfect examples. Roger Ebert considered this film to be a masterpiece and I completely agree.