Adaptation.

Screenwriting this smart, inventive, passionate and rip-roaringly funny is a rare species. So all praise to Charlie Kaufman, working with director Spike Jonze to create the most original and outrageous film comedy since the two first teamed on Being John Malkovich, in 1999.

But how to describe it? Nicolas Cage, back from hell or wherever it is good actors get sucked under by muck such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, plays Kaufman. And he's terrific, portraying Charlie as a balding, paunchy, self-loathing introvert who can't get laid. Wait — the star of the film plays the writer of the film? What's up with that?

hat's up is that Adaptation is the story of how Charlie, following his Oscar nomination for Malkovich (a flashback to the set of that film is piss-yourself hilarious), takes on a job adapting The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction, nonlinear book by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a toothless Florida flower breeder in search of a rare "ghost orchid."

These are real people, not the stuff of boffo fantasy, which is fine by Charlie. He tells a studio exec (a smashing Tilda Swinton): no sex, no guns, no car chases — "Why can't there be a movie simply about flowers?" Yeah, right. As Charlie sits at his typewriter, promising himself coffee and a muffin if he can cough up ideas, Jonze runs amok with the visuals: time travel, a cameo from Charles Darwin, a quickie nature lesson about how flowers adapt and Charlie's decision to put himself in the script.

ot just Charlie but his twin, Donald (Cage again), also fat and balding but — it's a sweet joke — hugely successful with women. Donald easily seduces Caroline (Maggie Gyllenhaal), while Charlie can't show his feelings to Amelia (a solid Cara Seymour) or even say a word to Susan in an elevator.

In real life, Kaufman has no twin. Donald is Charlie's livelier, crasser alter ego; he's fresh from a seminar with screenwriting expert Robert McKee (also real, but played here with priceless mischief by Brian Cox). McKee teaches that a script without conflict or crisis will "bore an audience to tears." So the twins collaborate on an adaptation that is pure Hollywood nightmare and too delicious to reveal.

Cage is a double-barreled marvel, nailing every laugh as well as the emotions that run deep in the twins. It's a kick to see Streep let go with rich comic material. Just watch her trip out with a dial tone (don't ask). Expect Oscar to chase Cooper. Best known for character roles (American Beauty), he gives a bust-out star performance that brims with magnetism (not easy if you're acting with no front teeth).

Adaptation is about obsession: for an orchid, for writing, for finding something or someone to obsess about. As Donald tells Charlie, "You are what you love, not what loves you." Few scripts toss more challenging balls in the air, and Jonze juggles them all with artful, light-stepping ease. It's magic.

From The Archives Issue 911: December 12, 2002
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