review by Zach B.
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox
Written by: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Retail Price: $`19.95
Features: Theatrical Trailer, Filmographies
Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, English Closed Captioning, Scene Selections (28 Scenes)
Released: May 20th, 2003
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is a quirky screenwriter who has been hired to adapt Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief," into a workable screenplay. The only problem is that "The Orchid Thief" is a very non-linear book and Charlie, despite all his efforts, is having a hard time adapting it. Charlie doesn't want to write a standard Hollywood film; he thinks he can write something simple based on a simple story. However, as Charlie quickly learns, this is easier said than done.
Charlie is also having more problems: he is insecure about himself, his abilities, what his life means and even his love life, as he's too afraid to express his true feelings to musician Amelia (Cara Seymour). To make matters worse, his twin brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage), the complete opposite of Charlie, decides to take screenwriting up as a profession. Not only does this frustrate Charlie to no end, but when Donald's own passion for writing grows stronger than Charlie's and the screenplay he's working on develops faster than Charlie's adaptation, things begin to get rather crazy.
Throughout Charlie's own plights, there are many flashbacks to several years earlier that focus on the book Charlie's trying to adapt, "The Orchid Thief." In these flashbacks, we meet Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), a writer for the magazine The New Yorker who feels unfilled with her own life. But when she hears about and becomes interested in John Laroche (Chris Cooper), her life is also going to change. Laroche is certainly a bit eccentric, as he steals, collects and sells rare orchids. Orlean writes a piece for The New Yorker on Laroche, which then leads to a deal to expand it into a book which happens to interest a studio executive named Valerie (Tilda Swinton) to make it into a movie...
"Adaptation" is the story of four different people, who's lives tend to intertwine and even parallel each other in many different ways. Hell, they all might even be the same after all. For those of you who might be unaware, the film is actually based on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's attempts to write a screenplay based on "The Orchid Thief." Apparently he really did have a terrible case of writer's block, and ended up writing himself into his own script. That script, of course, is for this very film. And no, for those of who you are still confused or didn't hear about the big joke that unfortunately got too much attention, there is no Donald Kaufman (despite the dedication in the closing credits and Donald being credited for the screenplay).
I love movies about the writing process, and I believe "Adaptation" ranks as one of the best. I am a writer and writing is my passion, so I found it very easy to relate to what happens in the film. Charlie Kaufman is a very talented writer, but what should strike a chord with those who see the movie is that even the best have their moments of hardships, be it in their personal lives or in their work.
Yet there is much more to Kaufman's screenplay than what meets the eye. What is probably its greatest asset is how honest it truly is. This is probably due to the characters. Kaufman was able to build upon Susan Orlean and John Laroche from the book, because the events the book talks about actually did happen and the people are real. Kaufman was obviously able to build upon himself, his own feelings of inadequacy and his own struggles. I do believe that Donald Kaufman is Charlie's alter-ego, that probably existed somewhere or somehow. Despite the fact Donald never truly lived as a seperate human being, I don't think Kaufman had to look far to develop the character.
Kaufman's screenplay is equally funny and dramatic, a balance that always seems quite hard to attain in feature films. The drama does ring true, as I found myself empathetic toward Charlie's conflicts within himself and writing the screenplay, let alone his rising frustration. There is more heartfelt to be had in Laroche's past that involves a heartbreaking accident and as he looks for his own ways to escape. Of course, we also have Susan Orlean, looking to find happiness and attach herself onto somehthing pure. She might find that within Laroche and his hobbies, but we clearly see she's not satisfied with her marriage and her life in general. Orlean is looking for a passion and meaning which tends to drive Charlie, Donald and Laroche.
On the comedic side, most of the laughs come from Donald's intentions, Charlie's insecurities and the interaction between those two conflicting brothers. But I was mostly satisfied with the irony the film brings. "Adaptation" is quite satirical in nature (as it is the intention), yet it's quite sublime and wonderfully daring as it takes shots at Hollywood. Charlie is quick to criticize various stereotypes and clichés such as violence, imagery and "profound life lessons." However, we find these things in the film itself and that they actually work without feeling forced or ludicrous. Charlie learns about life, there is violence and there is symbolism throughout. More of the Hollywood elements are brought to life and in a sense, surpress Charlie when he signs up for Robert McKee's screenwriting course (upon the advice of his brother). Those scenes, while brief, are downright hysterical. Robert McKee (portrayed by Brian Cox in the film) is actually also a real guy, and the film lampoons his well-known course.
There are quite a few meanings to the film's title as well. What does "Adaptation" exactly mean? Obviously and directly, it's Charlie's attempts to create an adaptation for the book "The Orchid Thief." But in the movie, each character must somehow adapt to who they are, what has happened to them and what is going on in the present. Charlie is not social and is incredibly self-concious, and he needs to learn to let go and be more like his positive brother Donald. Donald lives in the moment, has an open mind but is still quite naive and enjoys life for what it's worth. Susan must figure out who she is and learn to get comfortable in her own skin as well as reach for some meaning within little things. And then there is John, who must acquaint himself with Susan for her work and reach for something new within the world.
Director Spike Jonze, who last teamed up with Charlie Kaufman for 1999's critical hit "Being John Malkovich," does an excellent job here. He truly understands and captures what Kaufman's script is all about. While "Being John Malkovich" felt rather surreal, "Adaptation" feels surprisingly realistic despite all the zaniness and wackiness. Yes, there are certainly moments that do seem surreal, but Jonze is sure to never step over the line too much. The film is well shot and put together in a strong fashion. With that said, it's surprisingly even in its focus: the audience gets to know the Kaufman brothers, Susan Orlean and John Laroche quite well as the film jumps back and forth and ultimately as the four people come together.
A lot of talk on "Adaptation" not only focused on Donald, but the film's climax and ending. My thoughts? I feel those who didn't like the ending and just bashed it into the ground simply didn't understand the movie at all. Yes, it is a bit out there but I thought it worked quite nicely. How else would you wrap the film up? I personally couldn't see a more perfect resolution, considering what the rest of the film develops and touches on with Laroche and Orlean's relationship and Charlie's attempts to finish his work. It might not exactly fit with the rest of the context due to its nature and content, but I found that everything came together so well.
Now I must go back to those critics and audiences who felt the ending brought everything else down: you don't know what you're talking about. I'm sorry, but while everyone's entitled to their opinion, be it with the ending or the film as a whole, I'm entitled to mine. The ending is what bridges what the movie is trying to say and what it mocks so dearly. It all comes together in an orgy of what Charlie doesn't want in his own screenplay, as I described and talked about before. But in the last twenty minutes, you will find violence, you will find a life lesson and you will find imagery of flowers growing and growing against the backdrop of a sped-up world, symbolising rebirth and beauty. For those who have seen the film and either didn't get the ending or didn't like it (or both), I strongly urge you to revisit the ending in seperate and then as the film as a whole again.
The performances in "Adaptation" are nothing short of outstanding. Nicolas Cage gives his best performances in years in his dual role as the Kaufman brothers, let alone his most lighthearted performance since "It Could Happen To You" (I'm sorry, but "The Family Man" is just too convoluted). His work here is just further proof of why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Even though the brothers look alike, how Cage manages two totally different performances is a testament to his abilities.
Cage is superb in his portrayl of Charlie, showing off all the insecurities, the akwardness and all the madness that eats away at him, all while looking to vent and find outlets for his many different irritations. Cage is also superb in his portrayl as Donald, who is the complete opposite of Charlie. Filled to the brim with glutton, yet at the same time, a fine sense of decency and a pinch of innocence, Donald is the guy you just want to hate and scream at, but somehow, you just can't. He's eager, he's determined, he's gullible and yes, he is loveable. Cage is a bit more subdued and underplays both roles a bit more than he should, which works wonders for the characters and the story. Yet there is such a drive and raw energy in both roles that cannot be denied or ignored, perfectly finding the balance between two different roles that carry the film.
The supporting performances are just as strong. Meryl Streep, who always does no wrong, is certainly an interesting choice to play Susan Orlean. To her credit, she takes the role, tackles it and runs with it. There are senses of mixed emotions in Streep's performance, as the character runs hot and cold. Steep doesn't overdo the more wacky sensations her character goes through toward the end, which would be something easy to fall victim to. You feel Orlean's interest and emptiness all at the same time.
Chris Cooper, one of my favorite character actors, shines through as John Laroche as well in his Oscar-winning performance. I couldn't help but grimmace at the eccentricities Laroche offers throughout, but there is a much deeper purpose to Laroche as we learn more about him and who he really is. He is the character who pulls all the right notes and Cooper doesn't miss a note himself, as I found myself caring more for the character more than I probably should have. That really is the sign of a great performance. Also great in the movie are Tilda Swinton as studio executive Valerie (I wish there was more of her), Cara Seymour as love interest Amelia and Brian Cox, mesmerizing as always, stealing every single scene he's in as screenwriting guru Brian McKee. The overintensity and what flames right out of him is just a pure marvel to watch and experience.
While there are many strengths to the film, I couldn't help but get distracted by its flaws. There are times when I felt the story dragged on a bit too much, let alone hammer in its points too much for its own good. Yes, part of the movie deals with Charlie's frustrations, but there might have been one too many scenes with his writer's block. Those scenes are entertaining though, so maybe I am not one to complain. I also found myself getting confused often, as the film is constantly jumping time frames between its stories. This is fine, but it is not always specific and not always indicated. If there were more clear indicators, things would be easier to follow and understand as far as where the characters are and what happens.
Finally, this is not exactly a flaw, but I found the Laroche and Orelan portions a little dense at times. They are obviously integral to tell the story of "The Orchid Thief" and of course, many events in the movie. While I found the scenes usually interesting, insightful and crucial to the film's themes as a whole, I'm not sure how if I could stand a whole film like that without Hollywood's fun touch-ups. It's obvious why it was so hard to adapt too. Still, I preferred the Kaufman parts all the way and would have truly enjoyed a whole movie just on the brothers, what goes on in their lives and what happens between them.
"Adaptation" is certainly a very different movie. It's quirks are certainly not for everybody, and while some will embrace its originality, others will find it too weird for their tastes. Like many great movies that deal with Hollywood, there are a lot of "insider" jokes and references, so some degree of knowledge must be known to fully enjoy what is being told. While a good deal of people might not truly understand the industry portions, those same people will most likely find the Orlean and Laroche scenes boring and will feel totally alienated by the ending. But for the rest of us, "Adaptation" is solid, well-rounded and quite amusing. While I wouldn't call it one of the best films of 2002, it's certainly a strong piece of entertainment that makes many excellent statements and is also a showcase of talent. For those who are open to a different kind of storytelling and want something purely unique and clever, this is one movie that is well-worth seeing.
I must admit I was not expecting much from this transfer, since sometimes I feel Columbia/TriStar's transfers are underwhelming - even with some of their Superbit titles. With that out of the way, I was quite surprised with the image quality of "Adaptation" - it definitely one of the studio's best transfers. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image is consitently sharp and detailed throughout. Colors are very empowering and vibrant, background detail is very clear and fleshtones are flawless. The film keeps up with its varying color schemes, and definitely holds it own in darkly lit scenes. Contrast is also excellent, and edge enhancement is very slight. My only real complaint is that the print has a dirt piece or blemish here and there, but nothing too major. This is a superior, well-realized transfer.
Even though there's a lot of talking in "Adaptation," the sound mixes were a lot more powerful than I expected. All the dialogue in the movie sounds crisp and comes across clear. The musical score is brought into the channels seamlessly, and for actual songs (namely "Happy Together") - it sounds so rich and alive. Even though subwoofer use is good, it's the surrounds that push the tracks over the edge. The film's climax in a Florida swamp offers a lot of little touches that are strong, background crowds at the flower show put you there and a scary car accident gives quite a jolt. Imaging is excellent and the dynamic range on the tracks are wonderful. Between the Dolby Digital and DTS, I give a slight edge to the DTS since it's a bit more crisp. But for the most part these mixes are subtle, but the film's overall sound ambience is finely showcased and offers more than what you may have planned for. Wasting space on this release is an English Dolby Surround track and a French 5.1 Dolby Digital track, plus English and French subtitles. There are also English closed captions.
There shouldn't be anything - but you get two supplements. There is the exciting, well-put together Theatrical Trailer in anamorphic widescreen and there are some brief Filmographies. Oh, and the main menu for the DVD is kinda freaky (unless you have a fetish with Meryl Streep's feet).
"Adaptation" is an excellent movie that is worth several viewings, as the film contains quite a bit of depth and substance. I'm not sure if this is a movie everybody will "get," but if you love the wonderful mind of Charlie Kaufman, great character or some Hollywood satire, then this film is required viewing. This is a straightforward Superbit release from Columbia/Tristar - and like some recent Superbit releases as of late, it kinda breaks the rules of what a Superbit was originally supposed to be (almost seems like it was given the label just because it's a bare bones disc). Still, the transfer and sound mixes are top notch even if the extras are a bit slim. There is a special edition of the film in the works, but who knows when that will be released. Columbia has recently lowered the price of this DVD, so if you're a fan, now's a good time to pick this one up.