Adaptation: Who Doesn’t Like an Enigma?

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Writing this critique has been much more challenging for me than my last critique, simply because it was difficult for me to gain a strong opinion about this movie. Interesting that I’ve had a hard time writing about a movie about writer’s block. Charlie Kaufman, get out of my head!

Adaptation, released in 2003, has an extremely complex plot, but I will try to simplify it as much as I can. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is a neurotic screenwriter who receives a job of writing the screenplay from a book called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep). Kaufman spends months beating himself up emotionally to complete this screenplay based on a book in which nothing really happens. He becomes so desperate that he turns to his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage) who has become a formulaic writer, the kind of writing that Charlie abhors. In an attempt to find more meat for the screenplay, the twins follow Orleans to Florida where they discover her engaing in an illicit affair with Laroche (Christopher Cooper), the subject of The Orchid Thief, and doing drugs. when Orleans sees Charlie she suddenly decides all too quickly too be convincing that she must kill him. A few swamp chases and an angry alligator later, Donald has died in a car crash, Laroche is dead by big jagged teeth, and Orleans is arrested. Charlie returns home with the confidence to tell the woman he loves about his feelings and to finish the script.

Were you able to follow that? Yeah, I had a hard time too.

The thing about Adaptation is the first hour and a half are perfect. And I mean perfect. The story is relatable and heart wrenching. The viewer can’t help but become invested both in Charlie’s struggle with the screenplay and his tenuous emotions. The acting is phenomenal. Nicolas Cage seamlessly pulls off playing both nervous Charlie and his confident, suave twin, Donald. Meryl Streep’s performance of Susan’s downward spiral is evocative and real. Christopher Cooper’s performance tops them all. His character is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Even more amazing than that, Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing Donald’s girlfriend, doesn’t look like she’s on crack in this movie! Astounding!

However, after an amazing introspective one hour and thirty minutes, things get more difficult. My first reaction to the ending of Adaptation was that the last half hour of the film goes bat-shit crazy. The movie suddenly goes from a deep psychological dramedy to an action thriller in a very contrived, forced way. Susan Orleans’ sudden decision to kill Charlie totally snaps her character arch. She’s clearly been having some problems, being involved in an affair and doing drugs but that does not instantaneously mean murder. Her character up to that point just isn’t represented as someone capable of such a heinous crime. Even more than that, the movie suddenly has chases and bullets and car crashes and hungry alligators who know how to kill an antagonist at just the right moment.

Despite my first instinct, I didn’t think that could be it. After all, the screenwriter of this movie is Charlie Kaufman (no, that name is not just a coincidence) who also wrote the screenplay of Being John Malcovich, a film that is a stroke of genius. I couldn’t see someone writing such an amazing movie and then creating something with so many flaws (although, James Cameron did create Avatar after Titanic). I tried to look deeper, and came up with this possibility.

The movie represents a constant opposing dichotomy between the writing styles of Charlie and Donald. Donald writes using formulaic clichés with the simple goal of making money. Charlie is focused on finding the truth, representing reality. It could be argued that most of the movie represents Charlie’s style whereas the ending represents Donald’s. In such an analysis, the more cliché and contrived the ending is, the more the point is being made.

Or, it could be something else. In my difficulty with coming to terms with this movie, I emailed a very good friend of mine for help. I had no intention of doing this, but his response was just so amazing I have to include it here:

It crystallizes a recurring theme of the film: the artist’s difficulty in translating life, an ever-shifting, mutable thing that defies formula, into the comparatively formulaic conventions of artistic narrative. In life, there is none of the underlying pattern or logic necessary to great art. (The religious and to a lesser extent the philosophic impulse could be considered mankind’s best efforts to fashion these.) Life, if viewed in terms of art, must inevitably seem contrived and ridiculous, cf. the oft-heard dictum “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The ending, with all its contrivance and absurdity, comments upon this separation. Kaufman’s ending seems to suggest that any translation of life into art must inevitably involve a Procrustean mutilation. By stripping away the artistry that typically conceals this mutilation, it becomes more apparent, at least potentially. Alternatively, one could see the ending’s abrupt genre change in terms of evolutionary adaptation, as Kaufman realizesthere is no way to reconcile his sprawling vision and the demands of the market, forcing the screenplay to “adapt” in a more conventional direction.     by Alex Baker

Alex convinced me, but not completely. So, yeah, I now agree that the ending was not simply Kaufman having an aneurism, but a conscious choice for a specific reason. However, I still have a problem with the break in Susan Orlean’s character arch as I mentioned before.

The difficulty in fathoming this movie just shows its intricate complexities. I feel the best movies are the ones that stick in your head, ones that you have to chew on long after seeing it to make sure you understand it. Whether or not the ending is complete crap, Adaptation absolutely fits such a bill. Because of this, its superb cast, and Spike Jonze’s (director) ability to place Maggie Gyllenhaal in a movie without making me vomit the entire time, I give this movie a 9 out of 10.

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