As he did in his 1999 screenwriting debut Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman imagines in Adaptation a surreal world that includes wonder and strangeness, but is virtually bereft of anything like decency or selflessness.
Kaufman creates protagonists who torture and berate themselves, but never get out of themselves not even when, as in Malkovich, they literally get into someone else’s head. Even this awakens no shred of concern for any other human being, but becomes merely a new forum in which to seek self-gratification, a goal Kaufman’s characters inevitably pursue to the most grotesque and disturbing extremes.
Formally, Adaptation resembles the sort of essay a clever student will sometimes pull together by taking the assigned topic as a point of departure for a composition of his own choosing, knowing that it will stand out for originality amid monotonous submissions and win points for daring and wit from a bored teacher appreciative of any show of interest.
In this case, the assignment was to adapt The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean’s best-selling nonfiction account of colorful plant poacher John Laroche for the screen.
Apparently unable to produce anything like the expected screenplay from the book (“I can’t structure this,” he tells us in the movie itself, “it’s that sprawling New Yorker stuff!”), Kaufman instead came up with a surreal narrative involving not only Laroche (Chris Cooper) and Orlean (Meryl Streep), but also a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) who gets assigned to adapt Orlean’s book and ends up writing himself into his own screenplay.
When the onscreen Charlie first contemplates making himself a character in his screenplay, he’s initially aghast: “It’s narcissistic solipsistic… pathetic.” It’s very important that Charlie say this, just as Woody Allen must constantly condemn himself in his movies, on the theory that whatever you do on purpose, or at least knowingly, is art. Self-awareness covers a multitude of sins.
If there’s anything Adaptation has in spades, it’s self-awareness. Also, self-centeredness, self-parody, self-absorption, self-doubt, self-importance, self-loathing even self-abuse (which, as more than one critic has noted, is not incidental to the movie’s general theme).
Being John Malkovich was about a portal into another person’s mind. In the opening scenes of Adaptation staged, surreally, on the set of Being John Malkovich someone says to Charlie, “Boy, I’d like to find a portal into your brain.” Adaptation is that portal.
Of course the onscreen Charlie isn’t identical to the real Kaufman (just as, in Malkovich, the title character was only a fictionalized version of the star). For one thing, the real Kaufman isn’t overweight, balding, or played by Nicholas Cage. Nor does he have a twin brother named Donald also played by Nicholas Cage (though the screenplay for Adaptation is facetiously co-credited to “Donald Kaufman” a surreal echo of the onscreen collaboration of the movie-twins). Even so, the portal is there.
Does Kaufman have some kind of point to make about perversity and human nature with all his self-centered characters and downward moral spirals? I don’t believe so. Though he writes about deeply morally charged content, he does so without the slightest evident moral interest or even awareness. His screenplays are full of shocking and degrading behavior, yet he apparently shocks not to challenge the audience morally, but only to challenge their cinematic expectations and preconceptions.
Kaufman writes characters who say such things as “It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of self!” and “What you said was bigger than my choices as a screenwriter it reflected on my choices as a human being!” Yet he seems to have no interest per se in the nature of the self or one’s choices as a human being, but only in catching his characters in the act of musing about such things. He doesn’t seem to have any kind of larger point; in fact, he seems almost to be against larger points as such, especially if it involves characters “learning life lessons.”
True, the most unsettling events in Adaptation come in the satirical third act, which is intended ironically as a send-up of formulaic Hollywood moviemaking. By the same token, though, absolutely everything else in the movie is intended ironically, too. That the movie never removes its tongue from its cheek doesn’t make its moral obliviousness less problematic, or the characters’ disturbing degeneration less objectionable.
At first glance, it might seem that Kaufman has crafted at least one character who isn’t entirely self-obsessed: Donald, seemingly somewhat decent though none too bright.
But it’s all part of the joke. In the first place, just as Maxine in Malkovich existed to always do whatever was maximally perverse and would cause Craig the most grief, Donald’s main function throughout most of Adaptation is to drive Charlie crazy (though inadvertently), and his characteristics are subordinate to that overriding purpose. In that sense, Donald and Maxine are both almost more plot devices than characters.
In the second place, Donald represents the kind of screenwriting that Charlie (and presumably Kaufman) most detests, formulaic Hollywood schlock. Thus, when in the satirical third act Charlie and Donald begin to bond and especially when Donald shares with Charlie his ideas about love (remember the movie’s contempt for “learning life lessons”) this is clearly intended as camp, nothing more.
Thirdly, even the “love” Donald speaks of sounds completely self-centered. Real love isn’t indifferent to reciprocation or lack thereof, as Donald was to the ridicule of a girl he once “loved.” Like all of Kaufman’s characters, Donald is ultimately depicted as more concerned with his own feelings than with the reality of the other person.
If Adaptation is about anything human (other than self-doubt and self-loathing), it’s about passion. Or no, rather absence of passion. In The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean wistfully comments, “I suppose I do have one unembarrassed passion. I wanted to know what it feels like to care about something as passionately as these people cared about plants.” Alas, the only way Kaufman can find to fill Orlean’s onscreen counterpart with wonder or feeling is to get her on drugs.
Charlie, likewise locked in his own inner world, has no passion for anything outside himself, though he too feels the wish for it. Kaufman even writes in a character who tells Charlie, “You cannot have a protagonist without desire.”
That character is real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), who like Donald represents everything Charlie hates about mainstream Hollywood screenwriting convention all the formulas Kaufman wants to break. In other words, Kaufman has McKee emphasize the importance of the protagonist having desire precisely because he wishes to have a protagonist (himself) who lacks desire or passion.
After Charlie tells McKee that he wants to write a screenplay in which characters struggle, face frustration, learn no life lessons, and resolve little if anything, Kaufman allows McKee to blast this suggestion at length, ending with, “Why are you wasting two hours of my time with your movie?”
Give Kaufman credit for this much: He’s not afraid to put into words exactly why some people won’t like his movie, or to give hostile critics ready-made ammunition to use against him.
P.S.: Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich collaborator Spike Jonze again directs skillfully, and the acting is all good.
2002, Columbia. Directed by Spike Jonze. Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: A-IV, Adults with reservations
Depictions of sexual encounters and fantasies with brief nudity and implied masturbation; a fleeting explicit childbirth scene; some profanity and much crude language and obscenity; a couple of violent car crashes and some other violence; illicit drug use.
Overall Recommendability: D(Discouraged)
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 2 ½ stars (out of four) – Between Mediocre and Well Made
Moral and Spiritual Value: Between Problematic and Poison
Appropriate Audience: Adults Require Discernment
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Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.
(c) 2002 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission