Separately, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman can do some interesting things, and some not as interesting. Put them together and it is like magic. Their last film, Being John Malkovich, was a strange and original literal head-trip that was great because it was so different. Adaptation takes things one step further. It is truly bizarre and immensely enjoyable to watch. This is probably one of, if not the most, original film all year, and its genesis came when Kaufman tried to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Kaufman found this a daunting task. Nothing much happened in the book, the characters didn't really change, there was no great conflict, and he was terrified of offending Orlean with an inferior adaptation. So what else can Kaufman do, but write himself into the screenplay and make the screenplay about not being able to adapt the book. It's weird and compelling and most importantly, different and original.

So Adaptation is about Kaufman writing the adaptation of The Orchid Thief. In essence, the movie is about the movie, and cast as Kaufman is Nicholas Cage (Windtalkers, Captain Corelli's Mandolin). Cage is also Donald, the fictional twin brother of Charlie (who also gets a story credit on the movie). While Charlie struggles to write his screenplay, Donald panders to every Hollywood convention and decides to script an inane action movie, which is the exact opposite of what Charlie wants to do. While Donald pushes forth, Charlie mentally berates himself for not getting anywhere. Meanwhile, Jonze and Kaufman (Human Nature) merrily flash backwards and to flesh out the story of Orlean (Meryl Streep, A.I., Music of the Heart) and John Laroche (Chris Cooper, The Bourne Identity, The Patriot). Laroche steals orchids from state parks in Florida. He is the inspiration for The Orchid Thief, which Orlean expanded from her article in the New Yorker.

True to the book, not much happens in much of Adaptation. It is mostly about what happens inside people, especially people that are not very happy. Jonze is able to get extremely good performances from his actors, probably the best ever for Cooper (that's saying a lot) and some of the best in years from Streep and Cage. The tone constantly morphs between satirical, playful, and deadly serious, and each of the actors need to switch quickly. For Cage, it works because Donald and Charlie aren't as simple and overbearing as his other recent roles. Cage has many scenes that are painful to sit through, because his thoughts come out as voice over, and his insecurities take over. Jonze is able to highlight Streep's comedic talents, and Cooper goes way over the top while not turning Laroche into a joke. This is hard to do, since the Laroche character is extremely easy to make fun of. By taking him seriously, Jonze and Kaufman make him a richer, deeper person. Cooper usually stays with roles where his character is a jerk (and he's great at it), and he really expands his talents here.

Kaufman's mindbending talent to twist fiction and reality also makes Adaptation a fun watch. Charlie Kaufman, Susan Orlean, and John Laroche are all real people. The movie even begins on the set of Being John Malkovich, mixing fictional and real characters. What happens for a lot of the film is real. The title signifies both Kaufman's attempt to write his screenplay, the orchid's symbiotic evolution with insects, and the ability of people to change. Near the end, Kaufman and Jonze go on a strange tangent. It makes sense within the confines of the movie and for what the movie is trying to accomplish, but can be viewed Kaufman selling out to what he hates, or a further skewering of the creative process. One can argue either way, but the looniness of everything seems to tilt it towards the former conclusion. Either way, it is strange, funny, and very watchable.

Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.
1 hour, 56 minutes, Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use, and violent images.

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