Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is a snake eating its own tail. That’s an expression used in the movie; so is “deus ex machina,” which pretty well describes the ending. Kaufman has written an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief in which Kaufman writes himself into an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. The movie becomes about writers — not just Charlie Kaufman, but his fictional twin brother Donald (who goes into screenwriting and has much more of an affinity for movie conventions than Charlie does) and Susan Orlean (who travels to Florida to cover orchid thief John Laroche and gets caught up in his passion for his “work”). These writers — all writers — mutate their material according to their own drives and demons. Adaptation is possibly without peer as a study of the act of creation as a shaky, hapless endeavor — an act of narcissism, in which the writer leaves his fingerprints all over the work until the fingerprints become the work.

The movie’s adaptation of The Orchid Thief has very little to do with The Orchid Thief, and the movie’s Charlie Kaufman — pudgy, balding — is quite unlike the actual Kaufman, a thin man with a thick head of hair. Kaufman’s self-deprecating projection of himself — the blubbery, sweaty geek he may see himself as in dark moments — is played with annihilating over-the-top misery by Nicolas Cage, who makes high entertainment out of self-loathing. (The performance is the flip side of Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas.) With the help of ingenious visual effects — far smoother than those seen in Dead Ringers or even Multiplicity just six years prior — Cage also plays the twin Donald, a cheerier fellow who looks just like Charlie but doesn’t let that stop him. Donald’s head is full of Great Ideas for movies — like The 3, a multiple-personality thriller that sounds just awful enough to be an actual movie. Donald can be taken on a few levels: he’s the standard-issue “opposite twin” or “evil twin” (Donald isn’t evil, really, but the resentful Charlie may see him as such for his ease with the ladies and his comfort with formula screenwriting); he’s the part of Kaufman’s brain that nags him to do something more accessible; he’s the confident mirror image Kaufman may wish he could turn on and off. The movie is really Being Charlie Kaufman, in which we enter Kaufman’s head for two hours.

Why The Orchid Thief? Why Susan Orlean? Charlie, like Kaufman (for the sake of simplicity I will refer to the movie’s Charlie Kaufman as Charlie and the real Kaufman as Kaufman), falls in love with Orlean’s writing; something about it touches him — maybe a bit of inchoate sadness (Kaufman has a Native American in the movie commenting that he can see the sadness in Susan’s eyes). Meryl Streep plays Susan — emphatically a not-really-Susan-Orlean — as a yearning city woman who wishes she could feel passionate about something. Everything is a subject to her, a thing to be written, not an experience to be lived. When she meets John Laroche (Chris Cooper in a happily atypical, slobby redneck performance), she sees what she’s been missing. John gets gung-ho about things — turtles, fish — and then one day decides to discard them. His current thing is orchids, which he hopes to clone and sell for big money; later his thing will be Internet porn using photos of topless local women. Susan doesn’t really have a thing — she writes about other people’s things (like, for instance, female surfers in a magazine article that became the basis for Blue Crush). Charlie, straining to adapt Susan’s thing, must feel a kinship, though he shrinks from meeting her. He sexualizes Susan the way she sexualizes John.

Adaptation chugs along on parallel tracks for a while — the twinning device is all over the movie — and then rams into an obstacle of its own cheerful making. Crushed by the looming deadline, Charlie acquiesces to Donald’s advice and takes a screenwriting seminar with the guru Robert McKee (the burly, powerful Brian Cox, who plays McKee as though he wants to throttle good writing out of his students). The guru’s pronouncements work for Donald but not for Charlie, whose very being rebels against cookie-cutter solutions. And then it happens, the make-or-break climax: Donald takes over the writing of Charlie’s (or Kaufman’s) script, and the movie becomes an essay on the folly of rewriting. Kaufman and Jonze quite intentionally trash their own movie, sending Charlie and Donald off into the swamp to face a gun-toting John and Susan as well as voracious alligators. This is really the only possible ending for such a deconstructionist movie (foreshadowed when Charlie jokingly gives Donald an idea for a thriller called The Deconstructionist). Since the movie creates itself as it goes along, it makes perfect sense that it should destroy itself. By so doing — in a climax that will disappoint many who hoped for something less conventional — it effectively trounces everything Donald, McKee, and Hollywood stand for. It has been made without the slightest concern about whether you like it.

Kaufman and Jonze have done it again. Adaptation, like their previous collaboration Being John Malkovich, is a deep toybox of ideas and jokes. It will confound some and inspire others to riff endlessly on its mysteries. It will take its place alongside Barton Fink and Naked Lunch as an off-center comedy about the tangles of a writer’s mind (and those films had bizarre, audience-indifferent endings too). And the movie’s title expands in meaning the more you think about it. Writing is a form of life, and life a form of writing: both require improvising, planning, adapting. This comedy about the making and unmaking of itself turns out to have a lot more on its mind.

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