Adaptation Review

Adaptation celebrates the sheer orgasmic joy of storytelling. It may appear to be a complex mixture of reality and fiction, a cleverly satiric comment on the hell of being a screenwriter or a postmodern discussion of how the past intermingles with the present, and in all of these things it's a fascinating piece of work. But it's really about the delights of narrative, exulting in what Roland Barthes called "the pleasure of the text", and as such it's one of the most enjoyable American films of the year.

The film begins with screenwriter "Charlie Kaufman" (Cage) worrying in voiceover about what's wrong with his life. We discover him on the set of his film Being John Malkovich musing "How did I get here ?" and the answer is given in a montage of a broad line of the planet's history from billions of years ago to the present. "Charlie" has a big problem. He's been hired to adapt a screenplay from the (genuine) bestseller "The Orchid Thief" by (the real life author) Susan Orlean but he can't get a handle on it. Meanwhile his (fictional) twin brother Donald (Cage), having decided to become a screenwriter, is spouting platitudes gained from seminars held by (real-life) screenwriting guru Robert McKee and writing a banal serial killer flick which everyone except "Charlie" seems to love.

This basic plotline becomes ingeniously complicated with flashbacks depicting Susan Orlean's growing fascination with the 'orchid thief' of her title, John Laroche (Cooper) and further flashbacks to incidents in Laroche's life which make him an increasingly fascinating character. What connects all these elements is the concept of 'adaptation' - as applied to plants as well as books. Laroche makes this plain when he says "Adaptation's a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world." That's exactly what all three characters are doing. "Charlie" with his efforts to understand his life which salvaging his reputation by actually writing the screenplay he can't make work; Laroche with coming to terms with the horrible sadness of his past and his attempts to force life to make sense through his fascination with nature; and Susan, trapped in a life which means nothing, by finding something to care passionately about in the way Laroche is passionate about his orchids.

What energises the film and makes it something really special is the construction of the narrative. This is narrative as perpetual coitus-interruptus; flashbacks building on flashbacks while the film goes down some wonderfully bizarre byways for no other reason than to indulge in the carnal thrill of telling stories. The real Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze clearly love the manipulation of film narrative for its own sake, thinking nothing of including a flashback to Charles Darwin writing a manuscript or inventing possible directions for the story and then pulling back to what 'actually' happened. For much of the time we're inside the head of "Charlie", seeing events from his perspective or how he would like them to be. This tends to result in very funny dreamlike sex scenes in which various women throw themselves at him. By travelling down whatever sideroads take their fancy, the writer and director make a very important point about screenwriting and, indeed, filmmaking; that there are no rules. In using Robert McKee, first as a comic whipping boy then as an avuncular soulmate, the filmmakers seem to be agreeing with his basic stricture - thou shalt not bore the audience - and with his stated comment that real life, far from being mundane, is even more unlikely and eventful than fiction. They then stand this on its head as the film becomes the populist, completely incredible film which "Charlie" feels, following input from Donald and McKee, that he should make - complete with "sex, guns and dope dealers". How much of this climax is happening and how much is in their hero's head is a fascinating conundrum but there's no doubting the sincerity and beauty of the very touching final moments.

This playfulness could become irritatingly complex and mannered but this problem has been averted by some superb characterisations and casting. Nicolas Cage, often an annoying actor, does some of his best work as the "Kaufman" twins, contrasting "Charlie's" insecurity with Donald's apparent ease with life; but he also makes the point that Donald is as eager for connection as reassurance as his brother. He also does wonders with potentially horrible scenes in which "Charlie" messes up his potential relationship with long-time friend Amelia (a beautifully poised turn from Cara Seymour). In the award winning role of Laroche, Chris Cooper is brilliant - but he usually is - and reveals a very attractive warm humour that he hasn't shown before to this extent. Meryl Streep completes the central cast and is sensationally funny and, surprisingly, rather sexy. Often derided as all technique and no emotion, she demonstrates here that she's still got the ability to produce something genuinely fresh. Among the supporting cast, Brian Cox stands out for his funny and affectionate incarnation of Robert McKee. Apparently approved by the man himself, Cox is gruff, foul-mouthed and totally convincing. Along with his excellent performance in 25th Hour, this suggests that Cox, a fine actor, might finally be getting back on track after wasting his talent for too long.

There's a loose vitality to Jonze's direction which keeps the film moving along and keeps the laughs building without rendering things too episodic. The different 'periods' of the film comment on each other, often in amusingly ironic ways and sometimes poignantly, as in a transition between Laroche and Susan at an orchid fair and "Charlie" in a diner. The sudden shift to a bizarre chase movie in the final third of the film is especially well handled, working both as an exciting set-piece and as the intended comment on narrative conventions. It's only fair to say that some people hate this and feel that it's too jarring an effect but I liked it a lot, especially on a second viewing when it's easier to get a hang on the filmmaker's intentions. It also fits in perfectly with the themes of the film - adapting versus writing, integrity versus commercialism, 'selling out' - and allows for a necessary dramatisation of the basic emotional connections between the two brothers being reaffirmed and then necessarily severed. The sudden switch at the end of this deliberately pumped-up climax to genuine, painful emotion is well judged and very moving. On the other hand, there are some very sardonic digs at Hollywood. I presume it was unintentional that Donald's film should so closely resemble a recent box-office success starring John Cusack, but it's a particularly piquant detail.

Charlie Kaufman's dialogue is, as you'd expect, funny and inventive. His jokes tend to have a half-life - you may find yourself suddenly getting them after you've watched the movie. They pop up from within the characters - the moment when Susan tries dope for the first time is a minor comedy classic - and occasionally just seem right, even when you don't quite know where they've come from. My favourite example is during "Charlie's" discussion with his agent, who suddenly points out a woman saying "I've fucked her in the ass", then adding, "No, I'm kidding" as if it were the most normal line of conversation imaginable. His sense of structure is masterly here and I think he only loses momentum in the scenes where the real-life plot has become part of "Charlie's" narrative. These work fine and are probably indispensable, as I've discussed above, but they're a little too convincingly thick-headed and the pleasures of the film's playfulness tend to get submerged when Cage is being chased through the Florida swamps.

The film has flaws. It's central conceits are sustained more successfully than in Being John Malkovich but some viewers dislike being played with quite so blatantly and will object to the somewhat glib (although only superficially so) ending. The film also tries to do too much and seems to be exploding with ideas rather than exploring specific ones in significant depth. But as I said in my review of Soderbergh's Solaris, ambitions - especially in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking - are to be applauded, even if they're not entirely fulfilled. Flashbacks on flashbacks and then flash-forwards aren't a new concept of course and you could certainly say that the whole issue of commerce versus art is old-hat by now, having been featured in films since the early days of the medium. Yet I think the emotional depth of this film is something new. In The Player, for example, you never felt much was at stake when Griffin Mill manipulated his life into art and back again, but in Adaptation, there's genuine feeling when Amelia suddenly admits, too late, that she loves "Charlie". It's a beautiful moment, compounded by the final shot, an extraordinary time-lapse shot of flowers on an LA highway which is profoundly affecting - possibly because it's so unaccountable. We have a real investment in this character, best demonstrated in the scenes where, for one reason or another, he is horribly humiliated and you could almost weep for him.

Ultimately, what makes Adaptation such a pleasure to watch is that it's a joyously alive piece of filmmaking. There's a lot of cleverness in there but a lot of sincerity too and it's particularly pleasing to see a movie which places the writer so firmly at the centre of the creative process. A much more controlled film than the often brilliant but frustratingly erratic Being John Malkovich, Adaptation suggests that Spike Jonze is developing into a hugely talented filmmaker and that in Charlie Kaufman he has found a perfect creative partner. It's a complex and moving study of people trying desperately to write their own happy endings. At its best - which is often - the film is also a celebration of using film to tell wild and crazy stories, which is one of the reasons we watch movies in the first place. This is, beyond doubt, one of the finest American films of the year.

The Disc

Columbia's region 2 disc of Adaptation is, surprisingly, a barebones release which doesn't have any of the bells and whistles that normally accompany recent films onto DVD. This is disappointing if you like the film but does at least guard against all that dreadful filler with which 2-disc sets are packed in order to make them seem like good value.

The region 1 release was a "Superbit" title and contained a much-acclaimed DTS track. The UK disc contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and an anamorphic transfer of the film but is not a "Superbit" release. Having said that, it's still a technically impressive DVD.

The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It looks extremely good throughout. The cinematographer Lance Acord was encouraged to play around with colours and contrast, sometimes deliberately emphasising and indeed digitally enhancing film grain. This is faithfully transferred onto the DVD and is an effect which will irritate some. Since it's intentional on the part of the filmmakers I don't consider it a reason to mark down the visual transfer. Colours are splendidly well defined and the blacks are rich and full. The frequent nighttime exteriors are superbly rendered and there is no artifacting present.

The soundtrack is also very good indeed. This is an interesting track in which the all-important dialogue is clear and natural and ranges over the front speakers. Some nice directional effects are included. The surround field is mostly used for the natural sound effects which are often striking and the subwoofer is employed to stunning effect in one instance which I won't spoil for you. The music is nicely transferred too. Given that this is a largely dialogue-led film, this is a very good audio track. Some people will bemoan the lack of the DTS track present on other regions however, so if this is an issue for you then you might want to consider the R1 'Superbit' release or the R4 PAL release.

The only extras are filmographies (including a funny surprise) and a clutch of trailers; Adaptation, Maid In Manhattan and John Sayles's excellent Sunshine State. This is a disappointment but it's the kind of film which speaks more than adequately for itself so I don't think a Special Edition would necessarily be a major bonus.

I unreservedly recommend Adaptation. It leaves you with a glow about the possibilities of movie storytelling. The DVD is technically excellent and my only serious caveat is about the lack of extra features. Still, you certainly won't feel like you've wasted your money.

The R2 DVD of Adaptation is released on 4th August

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