I’m not really sure how to approach a review of Adaptation, only because even now—some five and a half days after seeing it—I’m still not sure what I thought. Many critics are hailing it as genius, but I cautiously disagree. I think.
Offering a synopsis is also a bit of a challenge, thanks to the film’s confounding mish-mash of linear storytelling… which, I suppose, is the whole point.
The latest bizarre offering from director Spike Jonze follows real-life writer Charlie Kaufman (who penned Being John Malkovich, among other things), on his maddening, frustrating and, ultimately, ingenious mission to adapt author Susan Orlean’s book, “The Orchid Thief,” into a screenplay. Nicolas Cage stars as Kaufman, a shy, nervous befuddled man with a twin brother named Donald (also played by Cage), who’s his exact opposite in everything but the looks department. Charlie and Donald live together in a big, empty house and both pursue their screenwriting dreams (or nightmares, as it were) in their own unique style. In tandem with the brothers’ stories is that of Orlean (Meryl Streep) and John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the toothless subject of her book with whom she becomes personally involved.
To delve into the various plot points would take forever and require an inordinate amount of focus on both our parts, so I’ll summarize: Charlie struggles with the screenplay; Donald forges ahead with his own work thanks to inspiration from legendary screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox); Orlean is drawn to Laroche’s world and his passion for orchids; Charlie and Donald become obsessed with Orlean and Laroche; and the film marches on towards a baffling (or is it brilliant??) final third. Did I mention Tilda Swinton as a creepy agent? No? Ah well.
Jonze, Cage and the real-life Kaufman have kept fairly mum on the meaning of their film when asked to explain it in interviews. Cage likens it to a poem that will have different interpretations based on its readers. I have to admit, I’m always a little skeptical of filmmakers when they decline to comment on what their film is really about—often, it makes me think they don’t really know, either, and are just trying to appear intellectual or mysterious. Yes, it’s about the process of adaptation—both in literary pursuits and in life—but *I* think it’s about writing. That might just be because I’m a writer or because I’m shallow enough not to look deeper than the surface level of the story as *I* saw it. Horticulturalist might look at it as an examination of the fragility of nature in relation to the fragility of humanity, while talent agents might view it as a cautionary tale about pigeonholing artists. Who knows.
Was it good? Yes. There were moments that were laugh-out-loud funny and moments of subtle perfection. (Although, I was a little bitter that Maggie Gyllenhaal only saw some ten minutes of screen time and Catherine Keener, playing herself, managed even less!) Was it clever? Yes. Was it genius? I dunno. Part of me thinks there’s a bit of “the emperor’s new clothes” going on, where critics are falling over themselves to believe there’s a deep, hidden mastery to the film that might not really be there. Or maybe it *is* there and I just didn’t get it or it didn’t impress me as much as it was meant to.
I’m hesitating to give Adaptation only five slices because my experience doesn’t necessarily reflect its merit, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking it’s not a good movie. Five out of eight slices is just, as Cage said, my interpretation of the filmmakers’ cinematic poem. I will admit my expectations for the film were *very* high. I loved Being John Malkovich and was fairly convinced that Adaptation would be so freakishly wonderful and shamelessly profound that it would make me abandon my own futile screenwriting dreams as a result of its sheer magnificence. I was desperately awaiting the film’s release, went to the first showing on opening day and sat prepared to be awed.
But I wasn’t. That’s not to say other people won’t be and it doesn’t mean it’s not a great film. I just wasn’t overwhelmed, and so, for me, it’s average.
Feel free to prove me wrong.