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Adaptation | Review

Being Charlie Kaufman

Darwinian logic finds its way in original film idea.

Do you remember Cosmo Kramer’s (from television’s Seinfeld) wacky idea of making a coffee-table book about coffee-tables which also opens up into a coffee table? This is pretty much the best manner to convey the theme of this year’s most inspiring, intelligent and mind bending cerebral film pleasure from the creative team of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze whose prior film was the brilliantly unique and wacky 1999 comedy of Being John Malkovich. Adaptation is certainly “off-beat” but using just this one word to describe such a film is an obvious-understatement.

Bearing the same genius that was imagined in ‘Malkovich’, this is the exuberantly funny story of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage-Windtalkers) an over-weight, receding hairline type of fellow whose sweat pores are overly-active and tragically shies away in the presence of the opposite sex, and to make matters worse he has the worst affliction of all: writer’s block. Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief is a challenging book to adapt into a screenplay, he passionately resists sabotaging the beauty that is defined in Orlean’s account and deep inside-he sees it more than just book about flowers. To make matters worse his alter-ego freeloading twin brother Donald, also played by Nicolas Cage-(I’ll get back to this later) has decided that he to will become a screenwriter and has the master plan of writing the next big Hollywood spec. An unhealthy relationship with a book jacket throws the creative screenwriting process a peril but the blender of his life events guides him to the end of the road idea of not only including his life into the screenplay but also detailing the personal life of the author itself (Meryl Streep-The Hours) and her subject Laroche (Chris Cooper-American Beauty), thus becoming a story within a story within another story. As confusing as it may sound, it’s all pretty much comprehensible once you’re in the gist of watching the picture and letting the multiple “adaptations” unravel as we watch each character, including our involuntary hero Charlie, pursue the eternal quest of finding love in self and with others.

I love the idea behind the film; focusing on the relationship between the auteur and his work as witnessed in more than one character and I also particularly enjoyed how both projects are shown in their separate timelines and how parallel one another until they gradually merge together and become this whole other entity. The film shows not only how a narrative is put together but also how and where book authors and screenplay writer’s get their ideas from-whether any of Kaufman’s story is true this is besides the point as you will see. You get an idea about how fresh this film is in the very start-with a total blank screen with only the credits at the bottom and a narration that explains the narcissism of the film’s protagonist followed by an actual excerpt of the behind the scenes crew at work on the set of Being John Malkovich. After this point we really get in the mind and spirit of the character-who is submitted to all of life’s cruelties making the viewer understand the causes for his massive paranoia and almost fatal anxiety. In this film the creative process is deciphered and then totally disfigured giving us more than one degree of perception. Certainly, all Jonze had to do is let the story play itself out for the camera-but I’m sure that his music video days helped him in the process of imagining several sequences of having not one, but two Nicolas Cages in front of the camera. Nicolas Cage is great, he manages to make two unlike characters without the aid of a misplaced facial mole to differentiate the two-I’m curious to see how the academy will vote on this double performance. Cooper and Streep provide some of the best supporting roles in a film this year, with there eclectic and honest portrayals. To cap everything off, Kaufman and Jonze choose an ending a la imaginative writing cue treatment from a Donald point of view. This major wink back at the audience is a satirical homage of sorts conveying the trashy and un-fresh ideas whihc are the make up most of today’s films.

Question: when it comes to Oscar time does this film get a Best original screenplay nod or Best adaptation? This is a treat for anyone who knows the film making process, look for Adaptation to become a prominent part of film screenwriting courses at all major film schools, kind of what Peter O’Toole’s Stunt Man did for camera techniques and film productions. If films could contain an ounce of originality found in this picture then I’d be a lot less critical towards an industry that churns out plenty of crap. This film gets my highest grade of the year and among my items on my “To Do” list are: to read more, to eat healthier and to indulge in watching Adaptation for a second time.

Rating 4.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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