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Rated 2.98 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Struggling To Create
by Jeffrey Chen

Am I able to write a review for Adaptation without being self-conscious? I'm sure I could, but I'm also afraid it wouldn't do the film justice. After all, a conventional review would have a point -- one worked out after much thought and analysis -- but then it would fall into the trappings Adaptation exposes about the creative process, such as even having a point in the first place. Whoever said a written piece -- or any creative work -- ought to have a point? Shouldn't it just flow, not worrying about where it will end up as long as it reveals an honest expression of the writer? Doesn't wrapping up a piece into a tidy package fall victim to what everyone expects, and shouldn't a good artist give people what they'd never expect? Or is it the other way around?

Amazingly, Adaptation does neither and both at the same time. It maps the pitfalls of trying to be too original, and allows the main character to succumb to give-'em-what-they-want mentality, but in doing so the movie is entirely original. Where else would you find such a mind-bender of a plot, one which relies completely on the movie's ability (or inability) even to exist? Consider it: Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, is about Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) trying to write Adaptation. His assignment, both in real life and within the movie, is to adapt to film Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief, which is partially a profile about a fairly kooky, orchid-obsessed man, and partially about her own ruminations on her fascination with him. Kaufman sees this as an opportunity to create something visionary, but the task soon proves too daunting not only because of his refusal to conform to Hollywood-ized standards, but also because the book doesn't have anything resembling a plot.

All artisitic types (and we know who we are) can fully relate to Kaufman's dilemma. He wants to write something heartfelt and true, but he can't because so many of today's common story devices have become cliches. Therefore, he has to think further outside the standard boundaries, but the more he pushes those limits the less sensible his work becomes. Not helping matters is the presence of his twin brother, Donald Kaufman (also played by Nicolas Cage), who uses his temporary free lodging at Charles's house as an opportunity to dabble in screenwriting himself. But Donald approaches the subject in a manner which infuriates his brother -- he takes seminars given by a man who claims to have all the answers in the screenwriting world, and he cooks up a generic thriller plot about a schizophrenic murderer, complete with a twist ending. Naturally, his straightforward attack leads him to easy artistic contentment.

Meanwhile, Charles reads and re-reads pages of The Orchid Thief to gain inspiration, and, as the movie progresses, scenes both past and present of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her subject, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), are intercut throughout. And here Adapatation's multiple layers threaten to work a viewer's mind into a pretzel -- the book tells about a woman who isn't sure of herself observing a man who has profoundly learned to become sure of himself. In watching him, she learns something profound about being sure of herself, and, in fact, the book becomes more about her own growth than about her subject. Kaufman reads her book and tries to bottle its "profoundness," and while doing so he has written himself into his own screenplay -- it has become his own search for the profound, and he wants to communicate that profundity through his movie.

But eventually the pyramid of profundity collapses and exposes its own falsehood. I could explain further, but I'm not sure I want to do that. I certainly don't want to give the whole movie away. I just want to say something meaningful about my experience with the movie. Dare I admit the obvious? I want to say something profound about it. Most of the time, that's my goal. I want to get behind the impetus of a film, find out what drives it, and flesh out its point. But what if the movie doesn't have a point? What if the movie frowns on having a point in the first place? What if the movie makes the claim that most points spouted by any creative work are by nature artificial -- that they have to be inserted when, in real life, there may be no point to anything? Therefore, is a creative work with a point betraying true expression because true expression should never be whittled down to a point? And what if, by saying all this, Adaptation does indeed have a point?

Then again, maybe it doesn't. The final act of the movie comes across as a deliriously absurd collision of cornball movie elements -- it feels as if Kaufman has given up trying to maintain his dignity and has opted to conform to Hollywood. If that's true, then what was the point of establishing his struggle in the first place? Does Adaptation's lesson-filled ending render the whole story pointless? Or is it implying that, in the world of creativity, enough room exists for a good dose of originality and convention, and that perhaps the greatest works strike a healthy balance between both?

Although I'm having fun racking my brain over these questions, it's time to put an end to my review. But how should I do it? Ah, I know. Here goes. Adaptation is a great movie. It's hilarious and mind-boggling. The director, Spike Jonze, does a fantastic job of making this maze of a movie feel seamless; Charlie Kaufman has written an incredible bend-over-backwards screenplay; Nicolas Cage gives the best performance -- as very convincing twin brothers -- I've seen all year; and the film paints a revealing portrait of the artistic struggle in the creative process. All these elements combine to make Adaptation one of the best movies of the year. Honest.

(Review also posted at

Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "R" for language, sexuality, some drug use, and violent images.

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