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(2002) **** R
114 min. Columbia. Director: Spike Jonze. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour.

Charlie Kaufman--the mad genius of screenwriting for the new millennium--had a problem: how to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a novel lacking in the clean, easy lines of conventional narrative? Kaufman's postmodern answer: write himself, his invented brother Donald, Orlean, and--in the most inspired coup de grâce--career screenwriting "expert" Robert McKee into his adaptation. The resulting film, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Nicholas Cage as the Kaufman brothers, is a hilarious self-reflexive masterpiece and, arguably, the most scathing Hollywood satire ever made.

Jonze directed Kaufman's breakthrough screenplay Being John Malkovich (cleverly sampled here), and Adaptation ups the ante from that film's absurdist hide-and-seek. Navel-gazing Hollywood send-ups have become infuriatingly common in recent years of decreased filmic creativity, but Kaufman and Jonze give each obligatory element an adrenaline shot: writer's block builds to a deafening mock-opera in Kaufman's head, the blithely insipid commercial mindset comes at Kaufman from both sides (his agent and his aspiring-screenwriter brother), and movie romance collapses into a series of clumsy, isolating failures of pursuit, passion, and obsession. Uncoincidentally, these same traits prod Kaufman on as a writer.

While following Kaufman's tortured path toward a final product, the movie collides with Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) and penetrates the novel in question, introducing its orchid-poaching anti-hero John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Cage masterfully contrasts a man uncomfortable in his own skin with his maddeningly slick, ignorantly bliss alter ego. Streep modulates her Orlean from an earnest, somewhat shell-shocked author into an exponential monster, and Cooper--in a brave abandonment of vanity, gives a career-topping performance as a seductively spontaneous, deceptively confident raconteur who sweats scruffy charm.

Though capable of genuinely touching moments, Adaptation also scores as one of the funniest comedies of the year. Adept use of inner monologue for Cage's Charlie supplements biting characterization of the supporting players. Donald--in Cage's seamlessly integrated interpretation--is a priceless dope (don't miss the post-credits gag based on his awful screenplay), and the ubiquitous Brian Cox is a riotous force of nature as the haranguing McKee. Technique also fuels the humor, in runaway montages, dreams and fantasies, and tricks of perspective (as Kaufman obsesses about Orlean, her book-jacket author photo changes, elusively).

Kaufman and Jonze take a core sample of imagination, art, and illusion. We get to see--for example--Orlean meet Laroche, her notes about Laroche on her notepad, the novel based on her notes, Kaufman writing the screenplay based on the novel, and (why not?) the origin of life on Earth. As such, the film slyly magnifies the science of reality, adaptation in terms of evolution. The feminine orchid--the rare, elusive prize--represent a holy trinity of art, commerce, and the "other" for Kaufman, who needs each to be whole. Plants, people, and movies evolve before our eyes.

Adaptation records the casual exploitation we excuse from purveyors of art and entertainment. Studios and audiences undervalue writers who suffer for our lowbrow cultural sins (an editorial suit assures Orlean, "Oh, don't worry. We have screenwriters to write the screenplay," swiftly belittling the novelist and the flop-sweating, indentured screenwriter). In kind, the writers exploit their subjects, Kaufman exploiting Orlean and Orlean exploiting Laroche. Laroche, the most free of expectations, has the last laugh against the tortured writers. In pointed contrast to Kaufman's picture-long struggle, a lost-in-the-woods Laroche insists, "I've done this a million times. When everything's killing me, I just say, 'Screw it' and go straight ahead."

In the end, so does Adaptation, in a bold final act which gradually, purposefully, turns false to tell a truth. More than a joke, the film's ultimate destination admits several degrees of defeat before a bravura, time-lapse deployment of image caps the inevitable failure of an adaptation--of another piece of art, or of life--to find satisfactory resolution.

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