Adaptation — the latest cooperative venture from director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose previous collaborations include Being John Malkovich — wants desperately to be what Malkovich was, a witty and novel take on confused identities and the search for meaning. Instead, it is a self-indulgent, pretentiously self-referential take on the trials and tribulations of screenwriting. In spite of these flaws, Nicholas Cage’s brilliant and hilarious performance nearly rescues the film.
Nearly, but not quite. The film is loosely based on the true story of Charlie Kaufman’s struggles to adapt a nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, to film. Unable to pull this off, Kaufman ended up writing himself and his struggles into the film. At a pivotal point in the film, the character Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) attends a popular writer’s seminar and joins the teacher afterward for a beer and advice about his inability to complete his screenplay. The teacher, Robert McKey (Brian Cox) tells Kaufman that the success of the film depends on the ending. If you give the audience the ending it wants, the film will work.
Attending the workshop marks a low point in the career and life of Charlie Kaufman, who had up to this point embodied a principled resistance to Hollywood conventions. Cage does double duty in the film, playing Charlie and his twin brother, Donald, a less principled, less self-aware, and more successful screenwriter. Donald is at work on a script that is a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Psycho and that uses broken mirrors as a metaphor for split personality. The soundtrack to Donald’s life is the Turtles’ “Happy Together.”
It is too bad the coconspirators behind Adaptation could not resist the temptation to take themselves seriously. Had they stuck to the comic predicament of the frustrated writer, lured by the success of Hollywood, and yet, somewhat inconsistently, trying to retain his independence from its soul-sapping expectations, they might have made a solid black comedy. Cage is terrific as the obsessive, self-conscious writer suffering from writer’s block, social isolation, and psychic paralysis. As he sits at his typewriter or paces about his room, he berates himself for being “fat, bald, and repulsive,” worries that an ache in his leg could be cancer, sweats profusely, and indulges in empty existential speculation about the purpose of his life. At the end of a date, he watches the woman walk to her door as he sits in his car mumbling to himself: “I should go up and kiss her. It would be romantic. We could tell our kids that this was how it all started.” His resolve mounting, he states, “I’m going to do it, right now.” Then, he drives off into the night.
But the film imprudently insists on being more than comedy. It wants to say big things about happiness, passion, creativity, and art. And it insists on supplying, in its own perverse way, a happy ending. After his meeting with the self-help, writing guru, Charlie Kaufman is able both to live and to write, to adapt himself to the ways of the world and of Hollywood. What the audience wants, it seems, is standard, Hollywood, hyper-kinetic energy: car chases and crashes, shocking alterations in the lives and destinies of the major characters, and lots of violence, drugs, and sex.
Adaptation is on the surface a story about the struggles of a screenwriter to adapt a book to film. But it’s also about the theory of evolution and life itself as a kind of adaptation. Kaufman the writer adapts or sells out. This is all terribly hollow, involving nothing more than letting go and holding judgment in abeyance as one simply participates in the flow of life and creativity. In this sense, the adaptation on display in the film is rather closely tied to Darwin’s notion of biological adaptation. With great comic effect, the film quotes Darwin and inserts a depiction of the transitions — one hesitates to call it progress — from first living cells to human beings. This montage of life’s development is the film’s answer to Kaufman’s question, “Why am I here?”
Lacking inspiration, Charlie Kaufman finds inspiration in the quest for meaning pursued by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), author of The Orchid Thief. Orlean’s life is itself rather banal, until she meets and becomes inspired by the orchid thief himself, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the toothless connoisseur of rare flowers. In keeping with the motif of self-referential detachment, Susan “wants to want something as much as Laroche wants orchids.” But the film fails to reveal any intrinsic value to the orchids or to the life of John Laroche, who is an equal mixture self-taught polymath, tragic figure, and con man.
(As Laroche, Cooper nearly steals the show from Cage. In an early scene, Laroche and some Seminole Indians are caught stealing orchids from a state park in Florida. Laroche patiently explains to the police officer that the state will never successfully prosecute the Seminoles for taking what is rightfully theirs, “as repugnant as that is,” he deadpans, “to us white conservationists.”)
Just as Susan Orlean is seduced by an image of Laroche, so Kaufman is seduced by an image of Orlean. But the film contains a series of images pointing to no original, no intelligible source of human knowledge, aspiration, or desire. The orchids are just flowers, which some like and others don’t. The best the film can do in the message department is to suggest, as Susan concludes, that it is important to want to want something, to be passionate about passion. Susan has “one passion — to know what it’s like to be passionate about one thing” — a sort of second-order desire, what philosophers call a meta-desire, with no appropriate first-order object.
This sort of vague celebration of passion is unlikely to make for gripping story lines. So, Kaufman the writer succumbs to Hollywood conventions. Of course, this all too self-aware film readily acknowledges its own incoherence. Even as the writer and director conform to Hollywood conventions, they claim to stand above the conventions, precisely because they are cognizant that they are adopting the conventions. But, in this case, the result is worse and more reprehensible than what might have resulted from a blind subservience to the conventions. In the hands of Jonze and Kaufman, self-reference and knowing winks at the audience become excuses for thoughtless filmmaking. Only in the world of Hollywood, or of obsequious film critics, could this be labeled creative.
— Thomas Hibbs, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.