"Consciousness is a terrible curse," muses Schwartz the puppeteer to his girlfriend's chimpanzee in Being John Malkovich. Schwartz, who manipulates his own creations for his conspicuously godlike pleasure, continues by declaring, "I think, I feel, I suffer ... and all I ask for in return is an opportunity to do my work."
By now I suspect Charlie Kaufman, who wrote both Being John Malkovich and the new film Adaptation, must feel the same way. In his latest film (directed, like Malkovich, by Spike Jonze), Kaufman's struggles with his material and his own personality take center stage. Indeed, Kaufman names the screenwriter protagonist in his film "Charlie Kaufman," though he's played by Nicolas Cage.
Although this premise already suggests an unhealthy amount of navel-gazing, Adaptation is by turns provocative, funny, satirical and rueful--for the first 90 minutes. After that, a brilliantly chugging engine of a film abruptly jumps track and plunges into the Ravine of Spectacular Cinematic Train Wrecks.
It's an audacious act for a mere screenwriter to make himself the star of his script. With Kaufman, though, such gambits have come to be not only tolerated, but demanded. After Malkovich, he became the biggest screenwriting sensation since Tarantino--and, even better, one with no desire to act. In short order, the term "charliekaufmanesque" entered the Hollywood lexicon.
If Tarantino's pop culture cocktails reflected the inevitable arrival of post-modernism to the mainstream cinema, Kaufman remains more of an oddity: a philosophically inclined writer who has clearly drunk deeply from the well of 19th and early 20th-century central European literature.
Kafka and Freud are obvious sources of inspiration for him. So is E.T.A. Hoffman, a lesser-known but influential 19th-century German writer whose tales have been immortalized in an Offenbach opera and that yearly holiday offering, The Nutcracker. Hoffman specialized in stories about obsessed, sexually frustrated loners who create automatons. In Malkovich, his influence is most obvious in the beautifully realized puppetry scenes, where Schwartz dramatizes his roiling subconscious by pulling strings on miniature people.
But if the Malkovich characters battled through philosophical thickets of mind/body dualism and free agency versus determinism, in Adaptation, Kaufman tackles more contemporary aesthetic, even post-structuralist, conundrums.
What is the relationship of the author to the subject? Is there such a thing as an objective truth that survives the mediation of a necessarily biased author? And is there a way to make an entertaining, commercially viable movie about truth and beauty, without relying on narrow, time-tested three-act formulas, with sex, violence and character arcs?
Kaufman's bizarrely logical decision to write himself into Adaptation dramatizes his intellectual preoccupations. Accordingly, we're introduced to Cage's Kaufman, a character who's just had his first success with a film called Being John Malkovich, and who's working on his next film, an adaptation of Susan Orlean's nonfiction bestseller, The Orchid Thief.
As Kaufman learns, orchids are highly evolved, incredibly diverse and seemingly sentient flowers that inspire fanatical, obsessive behavior in those who fall under their spell. In her book, Orlean admits to not caring much about the flowers themselves. Rather, she's interested in the obsessive behavior of John Laroche, her book's title character. In a passage that Kaufman uses in the film, Orlean writes, "I wanted to want something as much as people wanted those plants. ... I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately."
That central motivation catches the attention of Cage's Kaufman, himself a prisoner of his neuroses. His character is too inhibited to find happiness with Amelia, his shy, sweet girlfriend (Cara Seymour), and too wracked by self-doubt to make any meaningful progress on his adaptation of Orlean's book.
Soon we're introduced to Donald, Charlie's (fictitious) twin brother, also played by Cage. Donald's everything Charlie is not: a happy, likable, non-neurotic guy who casually decides to take up screenwriting himself. Armed with advice from real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee (but hilariously played by Brian Cox), Donald pounds out a hopelessly derivative, crowd-pleasing action flick about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
Naturally, he sells the script for a handsome sum. However, Donald's worst offense against his hapless brother is that he finds frequent and satisfying sexual release with Caroline, his own winsome girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Meanwhile, all Charlie can apparently do is lie in bed, fantasizing about his own girlfriend with whom he never has sex.
The device of the twins yields the pleasure of seeing Cage's Donald repeatedly stealing scenes from Cage's Charlie. Donald's a charmingly ingenuous creature who, since he successfully adapts to his environment, plants his "seeds" with great efficacy. Meanwhile, Charlie stews impotently, unable to bring his sexual or artistic impulses to fruition. (Orlean's book contains a discussion of self-pollinating plants, an amusing corollary to Charlie's own penchant for, um, self-pollinating.)
Interspersed with the irresistible scenes between Charlie and Donald are dramatized episodes from The Orchid Thief: the author's meeting with Laroche, her growing interest in him, his crackpot schemes and passions, and her desire to escape the suffocating, condescending New York literary world.
The casting here is very sharp: Meryl Streep, who currently has a superficially similar part in The Hours, plays Susan Orlean as a city girl who thrills for the danger and ecstasy she might find in the Florida swamps. Chris Cooper's charismatic, slightly unhinged Laroche is dead-on and Oscar-worthy.
For a glorious hour and a half, Adaptation shapes up as this generation's 8 1/2. Like Fellini's masterpiece, this is a movie about the process of creation, and a filmmaker's desire to make a movie about Absolutely Everything. Like Kaufman, Marcello Mastroianni's filmmaker is so burdened by the multifarious elements that he wants to include in his film that he's utterly paralyzed. Faced with such an impossible ambition, all the artist can do is flounder, equivocate, daydream--and bust deadline after deadline.
While both men are dreaming of impossible films, at the end of 8 1/2, we realize that all the fragments we had been watching--the disconnected memories, dreams and fantasies--were, in the end, the film itself.
To say the least, no such revelation awaits viewers in the last part of this movie, which has divided audiences since its opening. Some have embraced it, while others find it unspeakably awful. I'm in the latter camp, and I suspect that those who began to lose patience with Being John Malkovich around the time Cameron Diaz gets locked in a cage with her chimpanzee will also be dismayed here as well.
It's not quite sufficient to merely say that Adaptation, in the end, is no 8 1/2. Nor can its final section be simply shrugged off, because it ruins what could have been a truly special film, one that had staked out fresh territory in its search for new ways of telling stories. Unaccountably, at the end, Kaufman--the real Kaufman--folds his hand, despite the fact he's holding aces.
Instead of finding an ending to honor the marvelous originality of his conception, Kaufman destroys his creation by throwing its carcass over to "Donald" and his Hollywood genre conventions, in an unnecessary surrender and a betrayal of the audience's trust.
Imagine turning to the final section of Joyce's Ulysses--a difficult novel that nonetheless redefined its genre--and finding that a fictitious "Donald" Joyce had replaced the Molly Bloom monologue with a lurid facsimile of Victorian melodramatic prose--or, worse, a Jerry Bruckheimer chase scene. If you can picture this, you can picture the travesty awaiting audiences at the end of Adaptation.
Although there are greater crimes than failing to be a masterpiece, the implosion that takes place during Adaptation's third act is nonetheless appalling. It's neither funny nor clever, nor does it do justice to Orlean's book, whose themes Kaufman only seems to have responded to. With this ending, Kaufman's overweening ironic self-regard is so blatant, even "Donald Kaufman" film fans could see through its lazy cynicism.
In assessing the final catastrophic failure of Adaptation, it's worth pondering Kaufman's insistent, old-fashioned equating of making art with (fruitful) ejaculation. A truly committed stud-artist would take pains to gratify his partner--that is, the audience. Adaptation's ending leaves us only feeling screwed.