As a male writer with a genetic predisposition to baldness (not now but maybe, sadly, one day), Charlie Kaufman struck a sad, familiar chord with me in “Adaptation,” a bizarre, unnerving but charming film written by…Charlie Kaufman.
Ok, it really isn’t all that confusing when its laid out in front of you. See, real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote this movie, which was directed by Spike Jonze. It’s a tragic farce about a fictional, fat, somber version of himself (Nicolas Cage!) as he struggles to adapt a best-selling novel about a quirky flower hunter into a movie. Making this more difficult is his twin brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage!) who is much more confident and cheery than Charlie, and wants to learn screenwriting from his famous Hollywood twin scribe.
Ok, that’s the A story. The B story is about the relationship between New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) as she examines and becomes attached to her story subject, the toothless, entrepreneurial pornographer but brilliant, prolific flower hunter John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Orlean is a sophisticated, Upper East Side type while Laroche is a hillbilly type smart enough for a Ph.D but is more commonly associated with PBR. Their relationship blossoms, and eventually comes to a head with Charlie’s efforts at adaptation.
It’s a story about stories, but also a story about hidden brilliance, about family relationships and bitter human jealousy, and about the tragedy of being stuck in ones own skin, despite their deep desires to break out. It’s complex weave of a film that’s wrapped up in itself but never too hard to understand.
What rings true about the movie is that it both lionizes and pokes fun at its characters and their respective squabbles. Kaufman has the most fun with his fictional self, clearly the most guttural, pathetic version of himself he could conceive. But we even as we laugh at fictional Charlie as he wallows in his self-induced misery, failing to make meaningful connections with the world around him, we feel empathy towards him. He’s completely unlikable in every sense, a noisy stranger you see everyday on the bus even though they have nowhere to go. Still, we can’t help but want to see him thrive.
Kaufman and Jonze are clearly creative individuals obsessed with humanity, both our inane idiosyncrasies and our relentless penchant for greatness. Their achievement in Adaptation is the strange mood where everything feels completely serious at all times or completely farcical, but it always makes us feel.