Herald Journal Columns
Aug. 4, 2003 Herald Journal
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'Adaptation' now available in video stores


First a shameless plug: I am offering my seminar, "Flickering Light ­ Movies and Spirituality" as part of the living song concert series at Hei-Low Farm, (five miles north of Howard Lake), Sunday, Aug. 10 at 2 p.m.

There is a $10 suggested donation. Call (320) 543-3394 for information, or e-mail marienne@marienne.com.

And now for this movie review on a film now available at the video stores:

"Adaptation" is the mindbending and spellbinding story of screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and his struggle to adapt Susan Orlean's best-selling book, "The Orchid Thief" for the screen.

Kaufman wrote the original screenplay for the groundbreaking film, "Being John Malchovich," which was directed by Spike Jonze.

Kaufman also wrote the screenplay for "Adaptation," and Spike Jonze directed it, too. Even though Kaufman wrote the "Adaptation" screenplay about himself writing an adapted screenplay, he does not play himself in the movie.

Nicholas Cage plays Kaufman, but also plays Kaufman's fictitious twin brother, Donald, whose character is also a screenwriter.

(Stay with me on this.)

Meryl Streep plays author Orlean, whose book is being adapted by Kaufman as a screenplay.

"The Orchid Thief" ­ that's Orlean's book, remember? ­ is based on interviews with John Laroche, an orchid collector and con man who gets arrested when he tries to steal some endangered orchids from a wildlife refuge in Florida with a band of Seminole Indians.

Kaufman, as the character portrayed by Nicholas Cage, in this script written by Kaufman, is going crazy trying to adapt Orlean's book.

So, he goes beyond just the story of the book ­ which is actually more about Orlean, the author, than Laroche, the subject ­ and writes an adapted screenplay based on the book, with himself as the lead character.

He, Kaufman the protagonist of the movie within the movie we're talking about, must not only resolve his inner conflict ­ "can I really write an adapted screenplay, when all I've done before is original screenplays?" ­ but must also come to grips with the fact that he's fallen in love, or at least become obsessed with, Orlean, even though he's never actually met her.

(Though Cage did meet the real Orlean during the shooting of the film, I'm sure he also met Streep.)

Nobody in "Adaptation" actually plays themselves. Oh, wait . . . John Malchovich makes a cameo appearance at the beginning in some footage shot during the filming of "Being John Malchovich." But everybody else plays somebody else.

And one of the finest somebodies playing somebody else is Chris Cooper, who plays the orchid thief, John Laroche. (Now, remember, Laroche is a real guy down in Florida).

You may remember Cooper as the Marine colonel/next door neighbor in "American Beauty," or from his role in "Bourne Identity." He's also getting great reviews for "Seabiscuit." Cooper is one of the finest serious character actors alive.

And, of course, Streep and Cage are also fine actors, even though they're playing someone else; and you may remember that I'm a big fan of John Malchovich, who, as I mentioned, plays himself in this movie.

Now, if you could keep all that straight, you'll have no problem with the mesmerizingly convoluted story in "Adaptation." This flick, like its predecessor, "Being John Malchovich," goes where no feature film has gone before.

I often point out in my seminars and classes that, if you're going to make a movie that deviates from the "formula," then you must already be a master of the "formula."

This movie manages to stick to those rules of successful (as in financially) movie making, while consciously watching itself break every one of them.

"Adaptation" is not for everyone. First off, its "R" rating comes from very adult situations, sexuality, crude language, and some potentially upsetting imagery. I would not rent it if there's a chance the kids would see it.

Secondly, it's not an easy one to watch ­ you have to work at it. But I've been thinking of it constantly since seeing it two nights ago; and the more I think, the more I appreciate it.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia: Both Charlie and Donald Kaufman got Oscar nominations in the best screenplay category for "Adaptation," even though Donald isn't a real person.

I'm assuming the Academy knew this.

Then again, the nomination was in the category of "best screenplay adapted from an existing work," and, technically, it was an original screenplay that just happens to involve Orlean's novel.

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