From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Friday, March 12, 2004

Movie Retrospective: Troubled Artists - Adaptation

I've lost count of the number of movies I've gone to and thought to myself "Monkeys banging at a typewriter could do better than this claptrap." Probably the most recent was The Butterfly Effect, though I think the monkeys might aspire to more.

But how would you feel if you were trying to write a movie, and you lived with the monkey working on that script. And he was getting along faster than you were. And he's your brother?

That is the spot Nicolas Cage finds himself in as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. Kaufman and Spike Jonez, his partner in crime from the head trippy Being John Malkovich, take a ridiculously wild chance by inserting Kaufman into his own screenplay.

Cage's Kaufman is a woefully insecure, lonely artist, who is struggling mightily to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean into a movie. The Orchid Thief is a non fiction documentation of Orlean's time spent working with a plant dealer named John Laroche (Chris Cooper, a role he won an Oscar for). Laroche collects/steals rare orchids, and then clones them to sell to plant collectors. Laroche and Orlean are in pursuit of an ultra rare orchid called a ghost.

You can see where Kaufman has his problems in adapting the book. As he laments to his agent when the studio starts asking to see what he's written so far, it's a story about flowers. There's nothing more to it than that. And how do you make a story about collecting flowers interesting? Especially without resorting to all the trite Hollywood tropes that get trotted out in every formulaic script you've ever seen.

Further exacerbating Kaufman's writer's block is his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage). Donald has never really been successful at anything he's ever tried to do. At this point in his life, he's just living with Charlie, until he figures out just what should be next in his life. On a whim, Donald decides to attend a story writing seminar being done by Robert McKee (in the movie played by Brian Cox). And from this chance attendance at the seminar, Donald knows what his next step is. He'll be a screenwriter just like his brother Charlie. And he'll use every single formula technique that Charlie abhors because it's exactly what he's been taught.

That's about all that can be said about the plot without giving too much away, but the movie spirals from there even more out into Twilight Zone territory than Malkovich ever did. As we follow the dual stories of Charlie and Donald racing to complete their stories, and Laroche and Orlean in the actual book, we see the two stories flirt with each other in the way they develop. And then they come together crashing headlong into each other in an explosion of story mayhem that will either cinch your love of the story, or guarantee you will hate it.

I fell into the former category. The ex is an aspiring screenwriter, and we still talk a fair amount. She's been to several screenwriters' conferences, and so I get to hear enough about the job/hobby/pastime to appreciate some of the inside jokes. None from that line of the story are nearly as funny as McKee's presence as a character, through which Kaufman jarringly lampoons his philosophies, even as he uses McKee as a device to move his own story along. Kaufman also touches on the somewhat masturbatory nature of screenwriting, both figuratively and literally, and does so with tongue thoroughly planted in cheek.

Cage makes all of this work with the best performance he's put on screen in ages. Cage in my mind has always been at his best when he lets his own natural eccentricity run wild. In my mind, he will always be the pathetically endearing criminal H. I. McDonnough in Raising Arizona. But after that movie and his turn in Moonstruck, this is easily my favorite role(s) for him. He does such an amazing job in setting up Charlie and Donald as such distinctive characters, and making each somebody we can relate to, but for markedly different reasons. As Charlie, Cage shows as much vulnerability and insecurity as you can imagine a person having and still being marginally functional. By comparison, Cage as Donald is unbelievably self assured, even when he's making an ass of himself.

Cooper in the role of Laroche and Meryl Streep in the role of Orlean make the other half of the story flow, and ultimately make the movie a much more complete tale than either half would be on their own. Laroche is a wonderfully complex character. A lot of who he is we learn in conversations between him and Orlean. And we learn fairly quickly that he is an unbelievably self-assured and confident person, to the point of being arrogant. But that arrogance came at a price. And Streep's Orlean, as a person who is trying desperately to figure out just what it is at this stage in her life that she cares about and feels passionately about finds a beacon in Laroche's confidence.

None of this would come across if Cooper and Streep were not at the top of their game. Cooper is always a joy, has been for me ever since I saw him in Lone Star. But Streep was the real surprise. I have seen her in many things, and it's not in question that as far as technique goes, she is a gifted actress. But this is the first time I ever felt some of the humanity behind her character. To tell you how far this went for me, I'll sum it up in one statement. This is the first time I have ever viewed Streep as a truly sexy woman. And once you see this movie, you might understand what I mean.

If you want to see something really off the beaten path, you really should check this one out. Maybe rent it on a double feature with Malkovich. You'll never feel a need for drugs. This film spins your head enough to make you think you had taken something narcotic.