Every writer wishes he could turn writer’s block into brilliant literature. Only a few have succeeded. Shakespeare wrote sonnets about writer’s block. Federico Fellini made a movie about a director trying to stay fresh after 7 1/2 movies. Now screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who last wrote Being John Malkovich, is another of the lucky and talented few.
Art Imitates Life
R for language, violence, sexual situations
Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman whose recent success with a movie called Being John Malkovich has earned him new fame and a new job. A publisher approaches him about a book called The Orchid Thief, which documents the sometimes-illicit work of a Florida botanist/entrepreneur who deals in exotic flowers. She wants Kaufman to write a screen adaptation of the book.
Kaufman takes the job, but he quickly finds out he can’t find a way into the story. He tries to imagine Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the book’s author, doing research on John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the orchid thief, and although the two characters have great potential, Kaufman can’t quite figure out how to frame them. At one point he says “I’d rather let the movie exist than have it be artificially plot-driven.”
Kaufman’s twin brother Donald (also Cage) suddenly moves in with Charlie and decides to take up screenwriting. Donald’s first script is coming along great. He read a book called Story by Robert McKee, which tells you, step-by-step, how to write a screenplay. While Charlie’s agonizingly personal and anti-Hollywood adaptation is foundering in the swamps of Florida, Donald’s by-the-numbers action-drama is getting good buzz in L.A.
Kaufman is two-thirds done with his screenplay when he realizes he has written himself and his twin brother into it, and that it hardly has anything to do with The Orchid Thief. Hoping to salvage this mess, he decides to attend a seminar given by McKee (Brian Cox), who tells Kaufman “the last act makes a movie” and “wow them in the end.”
So in researching a new, bulletproof way to end his screenplay, Kaufman travels to Florida where he lives through car chases, gunfights, life-changing events, and personal epiphanies.
By Luck or Genius
Adaptation is a writer’s worst sort of self-indulgence. A writer has a responsibility to tell a story to his audience. Procrastinating by writing about your own writer’s block is a cop-out. It’s a subject with zero interest for anyone but the writer himself. At best, it’s an exercise, to be tried once in a writing class to help polish style or punctuation.
But Kaufman is either lucky or a genius, because Adaptation works, mostly.
For one thing, the main character is interesting and funny. Charlie is a loveable loser, a neurotic and paranoid foil. He tells himself he’s bald and fat, although he is neither. When he gets nervous, he worries about sweating so much that he starts sweating profusely. His twin brother’s ease and success with screenwriting is a cruel twist of fate, mocking Charlie. It’s a role worthy of Job — or Ben Stiller — but Cage is very good in it, too.
For another, Charlie’s screenplay takes on a life of its own. It seems to live beyond the control of its creator. It stretches back to the beginning of time, back to Charles Darwin writing in England, to Florida a decade ago when John Laroche was doing newsworthy things. As fellow critic Bryant Frazer says, “Kaufman-the-screenwriter pulls off the incredibly neat trick of making the film seem like it’s writing itself as it goes along.”
And that’s the thing. The self reference works because it seems to be happening in front of our eyes. It seems to be a living, consuming, breathing neurosis, and not just the selfish complaints of an artiste.
Although self-reference is one of the movie’s strong suits, it’s also a distraction. Because Charlie is played by a well known actor, we are always aware that we’re watching fiction. But because so many of the people, places, and events are real, it’s impossible to know what’s pure fiction and what’s “true.” While that’s part of the fun, trying to sort it all out can be overwhelming. It takes us out of the movie at unpredictable intervals. I found myself on occasion looking at the ceiling tiles instead of the screen, my mind wandering.
The movie’s experiment with a conventional ending also fails. The last act is set up to be a joke, chock-full of conventional Hollywood devices. So it really is bad, and we have to endure it for twenty minutes.
Even if we’d like to buy in to the sentiment, the moral that has been tacked on — that “you are what you love, not what loves you” — we can’t, because it has been pre-defeated as psychobabble. Sure, that’s the point of the movie, but that also means there is no sentiment, no moral, just a hollow, ironic point that might have been funny if it were shorter and less costly.