My Rating:

Weird! Earns points on uniqueness, adds whammies for good measure.

Bitable Bytes:
"Self-Referential Weirdness!"
"Intriguing in Its Originality!"
"Superiority of Genius!"
"Totally Alluring!"

What to do while watching:
Swim in the self-referential irony of it all.

What to eat while watching:
A Froze-Toes novelty ice cream confection.

First, it seems helpful to clear up what's real and what's fictional in the world of Adaptation prior to settling in to watching it. I have no way of doing this with 100% accuracy, so I'll just go on hearsay and my own impressions and beliefs having watched the movie.

True: Charlie Kaufman is the real-life screenwriter who, along with director Spike Jonze, created that self-referential weirdness, Being John Malkovich.

Supposedly true: Kaufman is hired to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, an actual, real-life best-selling book by Susan Orlean about a quirky orchid poacher named John Laroche.

Also supposedly true: Kaufman has a brother, Doug who really exists, and who co-wrote Adaptation, the film that sprung from the attempt to turn Orlean's largely plotless book into a film.
The setup is intriguing in its originality: because Orlean's book is not traditionally narrative, Kaufman has a hard time adapting it to film. She mainly collects her observations of flowers, of her own thoughts, and of Laroche, the titular orchid snatcher. The screenplay, therefore, becomes the story of Kaufman writing the screenplay. We see this self-reference bloom outward from itself like an unfurling lily. Nicholas Cage, in creepy mode, plays Kaufman trying to write the movie and eventually writing about his own attempt to write it instead.

Add to this self-referential framework the fact that Kaufman is dismally neurotic, self-deprecating, and self-loathing. The film starts with his voice-over engaged in negative self-talk--more self-reference--about his receding hairline, his paunchiness, his lack of talent as a writer, etc. We would assume that this is all true, that Kaufman is neurotic in a Woody-Allen way, and that he's actually even less attractive than Nicolas Cage in creepy mode. Though bleak, these voice-overs are delicately funny.

While Kaufman tries to write the screenplay that eventually turns into the movie, Adaptation, Kaufman's brother, Doug, also played by Cage, makes a pest of himself. Doug has taken one of those weekend screenwriting courses and has set out to write some psycho spy thriller, the kind of cinematic pap that Charlie Kaufman cringes at with all the supposed superiority of his genius.

The film is also peppered with depictions of John Laroche (Chris Cooper); Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep; and the film's producer, played by Tilda Swinton (who I find totally alluring). Adaptation manages to bring in images of flowers and to render at least a cursory telling of the book's basic gist through direct quotes from it and segments of reenactment. (I glean this from skimming the sample pages of The Orchid Thief online, something that Kaufman could have done, too, in order to achieve the same extent of textual delving that the film delivers.)

The film takes a turn, though. At his worst moment of writer's block, Kaufman himself attends the seminar that Doug has been raving about. In a drunken conversation with its facilitator, who may or may not be fictional for all I care, he is told that the way to make a blockbuster is to deliver a great ending.

Therefore, the film places a foot firmly on the platform of self-reference that it has created and leaps from there out of the real and into the realm of pure fiction. The transition happens suddenly. I noticed exactly when the film swung about and headed on a course to the land of make believe. As a viewer, I felt included in the departure for fictional lands. I knew to take everything as make-believe as soon as Kaufman began inventing the seamy, untold tale behind Orlean's book.
Adaptation isn't trying to fool anybody. It's just looking for a big ending. I'd guess that's why Kaufman and Jonze make such a blatant and unbelievable departure from reality in the last half-hour of the film. It includes several whammies in order to deliver on the big finish that Mr. Screenwriting Guru prescribes just one scene before the tale goes imaginary.

What kind of whammies? Shootings, car crashes, alligator attacks, drugs, scandal, and even a heavy emotional moral delivered gracefully by Cage as Doug. People who read and liked Orlean's book better know what they're getting into before they watch this. It's nothing like the book. Perhaps that was one of Kaufman's intentions. About The Color Purple and The English Patient, for examples, you can say, "The book was better." But in this case, there are no grounds for any comparison at all.

I didn't find this film off-putting at all. The heady-ness wasn't taxing, and the self-reference was clever. The entire cast turns in good acting, and there is a good deal of humor. You also get the sense of plot unfolding as the circumstances depicted begin to fall into place. Once everything is in place, you travel with the film into Phase II, where the movie turns Hollywood, but in a self-aware, ironic way. It's a good movie, overall. I say that without the least bit of sarcasm. I mean that, truly. Really.

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For your collection: Adaptation (DVD), Adaptation (VHS)

Gooden's Reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

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