The script is the thing. The script is the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the writer.
Take a look at most reviews of Adaptation
(or, for that matter, of Being John Malkovich
and Human Nature
), and you’ll rarely come across the name Spike Jonze (or Michel Gondry) compared to the number of times you’ll see Charlie Kaufman. Aside from the reason that Kaufman is the protagonist of this recent film, his stamp as an auteur is probably the most influential and dominating one of any screenwriter in recent memory. No matter who’s directing his films, the script is the guiding force of art in a way that’s almost a polar opposite to the director-over-screenplay dominance of a Hitchcock or DePalma.
Anyone who has read the script for Adaptation
knows that it’s a singularly brilliant piece of writing, but the rub is that screenplays are written to be filmed, not to be read. If every audience member who paid nine bucks for Adaptation
were to be handed a bound copy of Kaufman’s screenplay and placed in a chair to read it for two hours, the purity of the work would be even more affecting than it is at the hands of Jonze’s camera. That said, the benefits of the script being filmed include a masterful dual performance from Nicolas Cage, wiping out the memory of his post-Las Vegas
career mired in Bruckheimer debacles and shitty Italian accents. As in Face/Off
, Cage is at his best when playing two personalities off each other.
Cage stars as Charlie Kaufman, the writer trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief as a follow up to Being John Malkovich
. Charlie’s blocked because he’s trying to eschew conventional Hollywood structure and can’t find a way to tell the story -- this frustration is made more concrete by the existence of Charlie’s twin brother Donald, a moronic formula-slave who writes ridiculous thrillers with car chases and violence. The brilliance of Adaptation
is that for Charlie to finish his Orchid Thief script, he must employ the assistance of Donald -- and therefore everything Charlie despises about writing. (An important distinction is that the real Kaufman lies somewhere between the Charlie and Donald characters in regard to structure [though obviously, and thankfully, much closer to Charlie], and the best character arc in the film comes with Charlie’s realization that he needs to swing more towards the middle).
That the film we’re watching is Jonze’s interpretation of Kaufman’s script about a film that ends with the help of Donald’s ideas, and thus the film itself is infused with Donald-like ideas, is a mind-boggling parlor trick about self-reflexivity. But the beauty is also that this third act conceit allows the movie to leap from good to great. By the end, a Kaufman that has previously denounced the Donald way of thinking is actually admitting to himself that you do have to make compromises to allow your script to work. The entire film is about compromise (in love, in writing, in life goals, etc.), and the only way Charlie can finish his art film is to inject some of Donald's bullshit chase scenes, guns, and violence. Because it's that compromise of ideals that allows the poignant dialogue scene between Charlie and Donald in the swamp: a touching conversation that couldn't have existed without Donald's Robert McKee ideas worked into Charlie's pure artsy premise. Charlie is able to finally finish his script with integrity, but he does it by allowing some of the crap to filter in. He has to. Nothing can exist in life (most of all the flowers who learn to evolve over time) without compromising to the enemy. Changing behavior as a result of your environment in order to survive. Darwin has a cameo in the film for a good reason.