Charlie Kaufman is fascinated by identity as an act of creation. His central characters are a failed puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, an insanely repressed behavioural psychologist in Human Nature and a neurotic screenwriter in his latest flick, Adaptation. It's no surprise that his other film this season is Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, the autobiography of game show producer and star Chuck Barris, who claims to have been an assassin for the CIA.Kaufman's also wickedly funny. Adaptation, from the writer-director team of Kaufman and Spike Jonze of Malkovitch fame, shouldn't work. You could hammer it with an array of dismissive adjectives -- especially that critical kiss of death, "self-indulgent" -- if it didn't hammer itself with them first.
Nicolas Cage shambles through the picture playing self-loathing screenwriter "Charlie Kaufman," grappling with the problem of adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. He's dogged by his twin brother, Donald, an idiot optimist who's taking a screenwriting seminar, writing a serial killer story and trying to confront Orlean herself, as played by Meryl Streep. All these characters exist in both the real and the fictional worlds -- well, no one seems sure about Donald Kaufman -- and what starts out as apparent whiny screenwriter kvetch turns into a bizarre parody of an action movie.
Watching Adaptation, it occurred to me that it didn't matter that Being John Malkovich starred John Malkovich as "John Malkovich." It could have starred Vincent D'Onofrio as "John Malkovich." A character in Kaufman's script for Human Nature, produced by Jonze (out on video December 10), says there's only the tiniest genetic difference between human and chimp. By those standards, there's even less between Malkovich and D'Onofrio.
The fact that real actor John Malkovich played the fictional character "John Malkovich" offers undeniable existential frisson. But Adaptation is filled with "real" characters transmuted into fiction.
"Kaufman" agonizes over the fact that he's writing a script that swallows its own tail, and attends a screenwriting seminar led by "Robert McKee" (Brian Cox). Of course, there is a Robert McKee who hosts screenwriting seminars, has written one of the top-selling screenwriting texts and espouses the sort of principles Kaufman ascribes to him.
Then "Kaufman" takes his script and turns the movie we're watching into the kind of movie "McKee" says it should be. The snake swallows its tail, then vomits it back up.
Adaptation is a series of funhouse mirrors wherein Hollywood looks uneasily at itself. It's also a comedy about a screwball identity crisis and a pleasant reminder of what Nicolas Cage can do when he abandons his vanity. Spike Jonze directs with a very light touch; the difference between Human Nature and Jonze's films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich is that Human Nature tends to go thud despite the quality of the cast.
He's a master of the casual. His legendary rock videos look tossed off, and he has a minor specialty in strange short films like the hilarious Inside The Art Of Acting, with Ice Cube, shot on the set of Three Kings.
Jonze may be an insane perfectionist, but you'd never know it from his films, which take Kaufman's rococo structures and give them room to breathe. You hate to think what David Fincher would have made of Adaptation. Of course, I wouldn't have wanted to see Spike Jonze directing Seven either.
With a Scorsese and a Spielberg still to come, I'm tentatively calling Adaptation the best American movie of 2002.
ADAPTATION directed by Spike Jonze, written by Charlie Kaufman from The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, produced by Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay and Jonathan Demme, with Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. 123 minutes. A Columbia Pictures production. Opens Friday (December 6). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 94. Rating: NNNNNjohnh@nowtoronto.com