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Creating a follow-up to Being John Malkovich was no doubt a daunting task for director Spike Jonze. One of the most imaginative films of the past decade, Being John Malkovich set a high precedent that was practically guaranteed to generate talk of a sophomore jinx. But Jonze's new film, Adaptation, is a bold and original film. It contains moments that seem familiar, such as a hint of Sam Shepard's True West in its tale of sibling screenwriters - one an established writer working on a new project and the other fresh out of a screenwriting seminar and ready to treat writing as his new calling in life (at least until the next big thing comes along). But while occasional moments seem familiar, the overall structure of Adaptation evokes few precedents. Thanks to recent movies such as Memento and Mulholland Drive, viewers have become familiar with unconventional narrative structures that abandon chronological sequencing in favor of dizzying time tripping, but Adaptation is possibly the most dizzying example yet.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Jonze freely draw episodes from throughout a wide spectrum of events, possible events, fantasies, and dreams - at one point zipping back to four billion years ago (which must set some sort of record for flashbacks). In addition, the movie is built around the creation of a movie - which happens to be the movie that we're watching. And the movie that we're watching is being influenced by the producers, who desperately want a love story and urge the writer to create one, even though the original book being adapted contains no love story.

Like the fictional screenwriter within Adaptation, Spike Jonze seems to be drawn to the unconventional. Unlike so many filmmakers working in Hollywood today, Jonze loves that space between the ears and the grey matter that fills it. Being John Malkovich was a literal journey into the mind of its title character - whose mind could be accessed through a closet in a headroom-challenged office building. Adaptation is less fanciful than Being John Malkovich. It doesn't ask us to believe that a closet could really be a portal into the human mind. Instead Adaptation aims for paranoia and phobias and writer's block. This isn't necessarily new material. The Coen Brothers plied some of this territory (with an emphasis on the surreal) in their Barton Fink. What sets apart Adaptation is its heady fusion of the realistic and the imaginary - and the process of creating a screenplay that pulls these worlds together in ways that confuse and entrance the central character, named Charlie Kaufman (same as the screenwriter of Adaptation).

As the movie starts, Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is hired to work on the adaptation of an unfilmable non-fiction book about orchids titled The Orchid Thief (written by Susan Orlean). He is drawn to the material because it is unconventional, un-Hollywood, uncommercial, un(you-name-it). He doesn't want to write about the ordinary and the familiar. He's drawn to the book's passion, its total commitment to its subject. Not surprisingly, this quest to adapt an unfilmable book leads to much angst for Charlie. He stares at his typewriter, uncertain how to start, while his twin brother Donald (also Cage) arrives and happily proclaims he's going to write a screenplay of his own. While Charlie makes no progress, Donald fills page after page, mostly with conventional Hollywood drivel about chases and fights.

The very process of attempting to film an unfilmable novel then becomes THE adaptation. The resulting movie alternates wildly between Charlie's frustrations and his evolving screenplay, which features Meryl Streep as the book's author, who ventures into Southern swamps with an orchid expert, played by Chris Cooper - while (as suggested by the producers) Charlie hypothesizes about a possible romantic liaison between the educated, career woman, Susan Orlean (Streep), and the rustic horticulturist, John Laroche (Cooper, who plays the role sans his front teeth!). Laroche exhibits unparalleled passion for orchids, especially for an ultra-rare variety that exists like a ghost, deep within the swamps, more a figment of the imagination, a holy chalice, than a real flower. And Susan finds his passion to be alluring.

The movie casts wide its guise of melding the movie's fictional world with the process of filming Adaptation. In a move not dissimilar to the publicity materials of The Blair Witch Project, which insisted on the reality of the movie, the credits for Adaptation list Charlie Kaufman AND Donald Kaufman as the movie's screenwriters (but Donald, at least, is a fictional creation). Yet the guise is somewhat handicapped by the casting of a known actor, Nicolas Cage, as both Kaufman brothers. An unknown actor would surely have better protected the guise. But of course, it's not really fair to judge a movie based on its credits. What matters is the storytelling, and that's where Adaptation succeeds best. This is a frequently astonishing movie, particularly as Charlie looks for inspiration and tries to find the real Susan Orlean - only to lack the courage to introduce himself. He finds her and they end up in the same elevator, where he perspires profusely and teeters toward her before settling back on his heels.

Adaptation is a shade less surprising than Being John Malkovich - but only because it's so hard to fully comprehend: it doesn't fit any of the typical patterns or genres. Scenes fly past and then are re-thought entirely and played out again. This makes the movie somewhat difficult to remember. (Here's a movie to be revisited by way of DVD six months from now.) But, ultimately, the movie is about the choices that we make. It's about being passionate and committed and living one's own life, rather than being too paralyzed to act, like Charlie. While the movie is fascinated with the workings of the human mind, it doesn't do so uncritically. It frequently targets poor Charlie, the hardworking, successful writer, for his inability to be like his brother, who might be a bit dense but Donald definitely enjoys life. It also targets Charlie for his inability to be like Susan Orlean, who (thanks to the mentoring of Chris Cooper's John Laroche) has learned to become passionate about life. But then the movie turns this equation upside down by showing Susan's hypocrisy: she is so afraid of losing her fašade of respectability that she's willing to resort to murder to keep the involved parties quiet.

This is a marvelously challenging film. If anyone suspected that Being John Malkovich was just a fluke, Adaptation erases those doubts and announces both Jonze and screenwriter Kaufman as major talents. Of course, they also seem pathologically incapable of creating conventional movies, but that's what sets them apart and makes them unique filmmakers.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Movie Web site: Adaptation



Photo credits: © 2002 Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.