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Adaptation

One would have to scour the annals of film history to find a movie as completely self-indulgent as Adaptation. That said, you'd probably have to backtrack a good decade or so to recall even a handful of films that offer up a similar wealth of ideas from such a kaleidoscopic, off-kilter script. One picture that may come to mind is Being John Malkovich (1999), which is no coincidence — screenwriter Charlie Kafuman was the man behind that one, and Adaptation takes place while Malkovich is being filmed. Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has accepted his next project, an adaptation of the book The Orchid Thief by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). The only problem is that Charlie can't do much of anything. He's unsure of his talent, slightly terrified of women, and depressed about his age, weight, and lack of hair. On top of that, Orlean's non-fiction book may make a great read for folks interested in the history of orchid collecting, but it barely has any plot, instead simply recounting Orlean's visits with scofflaw collector John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Charlie's wracked with writer's block, reduced to bribing himself with muffins to make himself work. Meanwhile, his twin brother and roommate Donald (Cage again) has decided to take up screenwriting as a new career, and thus plods straight into a gimmicky serial-killer thriller. At wits end, Charlie thus begins writing a screenplay about himself and his inability to adapt Orlean's book. But brother Donald thinks the author is still concealing a key part of the story, leading the twins on a clandestine trip to Florida — and into a very messy state of affairs. Being that this initial DVD release of Adaptation comes from Columbia TriStar under the "Superbit" folio, it's unfortunate that it does not offer any extra features. Truth be told, most movies probably would do fine on DVD with little more than a theatrical trailer, but Adaptation is such a puree of fact, fiction, and fantasy that a proper "making-of" doc or a commentary track would do a lot to flesh out the film's head-spinning premises. For starters, Charlie Kaufman is very much a real person, but his brother Donald is not — despite the fact that "Donald" earned the film's dedication, a screenwriting credit, and an Oscar nomination. Susan Orlean is real, as is her book The Orchid Thief and collector John Laroche. And portions of the sets for Being John Malkovich were apparently re-created for this film, with Malkovich, John Cusack, and Catherine Keener turning in cameos. Putting the pieces together is what makes Adaptation so tantalizing — clearly, much of it centers upon Kaufman's very real frustrations with The Orchid Thief and his own personal insecurities. But when the third act of the movie takes a complete departure from the first two (in a sense, the anti-Hollywood scenarist finds himself in a made-for-Hollywood scenario), its easy to marvel over how the subtle set-up is used to reach a complex, attention-getting payoff. Kaufman's script is riddled with ideas — the relationship between creativity and self-worth, the need for human contact and one's simultaneous fear of it, and, perhaps most importantly, the Darwinistic reality that animals (and people) adapt to their surroundings in order to meet biological (or emotional) needs. Director Spike Jonze gets good work from his small cast — Meryl Streep allows her classic beauty to decompose over the course of the film, making a physical transformation that mirrors her own chaotic life as a frustrated writer; Chris Cooper gets a great part as toothless southern boy John Laroche, a man whose uncultured sincerity overcomes his lack of hygiene; and Nicolas Cage is remarkable in his two roles, to the point that we always can tell by simple mannerisms the difference between introvert Charlie and extrovert Donald. But why would Kaufman feel the need to create his own doppelgänger for this story? Perhaps the talentless, crass Donald is Kaufman's darker side, or perhaps he's the writer's better half. In any event, it's easy to get the feeling that he simply had to be dealt with, one way or another. Columbia TriStar's Superbit DVD release of Adaptation features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Theatrical trailer, semi-transparent keep-case.
—JJB



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