Chris Cooper, toothless, ragged, and passionate, and Meryl Streep, with a big wink in her eye, decide to embrace the crazy tale.

ADAPTATION

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


            “Adaptation” is likely to appeal to people who have the quirky sensibility that allows them to find love and laughter in movies like “Fargo” and “Being John Malkovich.”  These clever movies tend to leave ordinary people in a state of confusion, their self-confidence eroded.  What did he say?  What did that mean?  Why were people laughing?  It takes a while, after living for two hours in a world where reality and fantasy mingle, to sort yourself out.  

                You are not apt to straighten out who did what in this movie about itself.  Spike Jonze directed while Charlie and Donald Kaufman wrote this adaptation based on New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief.  The never-never land that exists at the edge of their cliff is a narrow band of denial and delusion.

                Step into this narrow band:  Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is trying to adapt Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) book for the screen.  Suffering total writer’s block, abandoned by his imagination, sunk in insecurity; Charlie stews in deepening anxiety as his deadline passes -  “Maybe I have cancer.  I can’t sleep, I’m fat, I’m losing my hair.” 

                The stories of Charlie and Susan Orlean begin to blend as she interviews John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the eccentric orchid grower at the center of the emotional chaos.  Leaping from her New York writer’s life into unreality with the orchid man, Susan decides to find out what it’s like to care passionately about something.  Under the influence of both John and his hallucinatory orchid dust, she does just that.

                As Susan’s story unfolds in Charlie’s mind, he abandons his refusal to resort to action tricks.  Presto, his movie writes itself on the screen in a veritable explosion of action film clichés.  We see crashes, guns, and alligators while John and Susan wade through the Florida swamp. 

                Who is the real Charlie Kaufman?  Who is his brother Donald?   Does it matter?  What does matter, is that the Kaufman brothers are credited with rescuing Charlie from an ordinary adaptation and dropping him into an illusion that will work for him.  

The only thing that makes this movie work is good acting, and the movie is peppered with that.  Nicholas Cage gets a passing grade with his one-note performance in dejection.  But Chris Cooper, toothless, ragged, and passionate, and Meryl Streep, with a big wink in her eye, decide to embrace the crazy tale.    Watch Streep, after breathing orchid dust, imitate a dial tone.  Watch Chris Cooper thrash through the jungle like Tarzan.  The two of them have jumped into a chaotic fantasy determined to have a good time.

This is the first of this particular brand of wacky humor that has tickled me.  Maybe I’m getting smarter, or maybe just the opposite.  But I laughed a lot.  These zany actors and writers invite us to leave our own stuff on the boring side of the narrow band and join them on the edge – a very good idea. 

 


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