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Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)


    Somewhere in the first third Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) scribbles “delusions of grandeur” into her notebook as she sits smiling and listening to the ramblings of obsessed orchid wrangler John Laroche (Chris Cooper). As much as she’s attracted to his energy and his apparent devotion to his “art”, she can’t help but be embarrassed by his overreaching aspirations. That those feelings of admiration, which never evolve beyond the tenuous and essentially sum up my personal feelings toward Adaptation, are included in the film, is typical of the movie’s self-aware schematics, which do everything they can to disarm criticism in hopes that the audience will give up and accept its onanism. Adaptation is clearly an intelligent film, but it’s intelligent in the worst way. It uses its smarts to build defenses instead of attempting to push closer toward genuine emotion. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman integrates himself into the film as its main character, playing a screenwriter who’s attempting to pen a film based on Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” and creating endlessly self-reflexive situations that never add up to as much as one might hope. The film begs the audience to be bowled over by the audacity of its narrative stunts, which change the script from a direct translation of the novel’s themes into a meditation on the process of adaptation itself, but the grace that the script strives for when bringing its three narrative threads together is never achieved.


    This failure becomes most obvious in retrospect, when the realization dawns that the most affecting, inventive, and honest moments of the film were those that hewed most closely to the original text. Even before the film begins indulging itself in clichés, the observations that it makes about Kaufman’s struggle in his writing process seem as if they have been culled from an amalgamation of every neurotic writer ever to grace the screen. Adaptation’s gambits might be more tolerable if they were at least self-deprecating in original ways, but it chooses shopworn targets for attack time and again (he uses a typewriter, he’s socially awkward, etc…). For example, its criticisms of Hollywood’s artless, commerce-driven mindset seem paradoxical because this film’s own existence proves the risk-taking still occurs in Hollywood (even if this risk doesn’t exactly pay off). A cynic could even argue that this is a perfect example of how Hollywood can approximate everything pop culture can throw at it, including a chic anti-Hollywood attitude. In any case, the attacks become especially dubious one when considers a film like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Even as though that film’s script had its problems too, guessing whether its inventions sprung from the head of Kubrick or Spielberg was far more fun and stimulating than anything that Kaufman has to say about the writing process. 

* * 


Jeremy Heilman



- True to the spirit of the film, I’ve tapped out my notes about the film and included them so you can see my process… Isn’t this so wildly fun!?!? I feel so free!

Spoilers follow... 

for all the movie’s derision against Hollywood, guessing whether segments of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence sprung from Kubrick’s or Spielberg’s head was more fun and stimulating than this


Cage = too hammy x 2, opening scenes are painfully bad except when the unadorned adaptations from The Orchid Thief are incorporated


Filled with too much quirkiness = uses typewriter = His life isn’t like in his wildest dreams! (just like in Every screenwriter movie)


Relationship with girlfriend doesn’t make sense and doesn’t feel necessary until the intentional hackwork in the third act incorporates it


Does manage to feel unedited, for what it’s worth


The moments where the film allows the central themes of the book to come about are gorgeous, like when Meryl’s desire for passion in her life is articulated or the pollination scene = lovely


Fails to recognize the way Streep’s character distorts reality in the New Yorker sense, seeking out exoticism so they can turn it into some sort of sterling prose filled with quirky adventure. Sends them up in one scene, then excuses Orlean from that scene


Screenwriting is played like a joke instead of a craft that can be imbued with real passion – Charlie’s moved by the book, but can’t see how that same admirable commitment can be applied to his own work… instead he’s cynical and denies its existence


Cooper = promiscuous collector who has most recently settled on orchids


Romantic entanglements are brought up for Charlie, but they seem utterly unrelated until the hackwork


Celebs play celebrities and main characters, which makes it more distracting than it should be


Kaufman = the one guy with integrity and intelligence in Hollywood, until the plot demands he give it up (of course this isn’t convincing because Adaptation in its finished form is such evidence that he had to make no such sacrifice)


Darwinian overtones = must adapt to survive


Can it really be about its own creation (of course not) or is it about the self-flattery?


Car wreck confession = affecting


We obsess on objects because life / people disappoint


Swinton has a good caricature saying always “we really liked” instead of “I”


He flatters himself with his candor and flatters the audience with the notion of being an insider


Screenwriter envisions film directly? No director? / middleman?


Neurotic rambles are the worst part = honesty is thought through as conceit too so it’s not really honesty at all, so it’s not satisfying.


“the only thing I’m qualified to write about is myself” = Kaufman but judging from the value of this screenplay, that’s what he’s the least qualified to do


meta-stuff has built-in defenses, but since it doesn’t work emotionally for me, I can reject them all – the profundities aren’t profound


doesn’t send up New Yorker’s pov except when it does explicitly, similarly, it doesn’t connect its observations except when doing so explicitly, the unfinished feel never dissipates, even as the work, as it is, nears completion


he obsesses about Orlean more than his craft


feels like he came to a dead end adapting book & inserted himself… nothing in the book begs for it, even if he felt he connected to her through the book (though it tries to suggest the ways they all adapt are interrelated, it doesn't convince)


the moment Donald was created was a moment of weakness, because he’s the sort of conceit that he grows to love… but when he dies, he’s rubbed off on Charlie


Orlean’s book has wonderful prose, judging from the snippets that made it to the film


The profound statement it wants to make is “fantastic, fleeting, and out of reach”


Sibling rivalry = things come so easily to Donald = astute form of jealousy to fellow screenwriters, who are sure to love the film ironically, because it flatters them by creating a source for Charlie’s venom so they can assume they’re not being attacked


Screenwriter’s conference makes him change style because he wants to sell out = Donald


“relationship ends when the book ends”, which is how you feel about these characters – none of the pretty sentiments linger because they were all used in an attempt to demonstrate virtuosity instead of an attempt to move or enlighten us


questions possibility of integrity in adapting to Hollywood


betrays itself but it’s about that betrayal = how we have to betray ourselves to survive = cynical & self-hating


Jonze can bring mood right back to mundane no matter how much it threatens to fly off rails, and because of that the third act doesn’t fail… it’s probably the most successful part of the film


What does this say about obsession? Third act wildness is more about quest for integrity, not romantic obsession or pursuit of perfection


Not brilliant, but convinced it is = mildly amusing when the cynicism isn’t overbearing


“You are what you love, not what loves you” = Donald


as it betrays its source material (and audience expectations) it betrays itself (Intentionally, but intentionally bad is still bad)


nice that it celebrates one kind of writing by deconstructing another


third act’s trick obvious because all other tricks stop (necessarily so) … it should be a wild ride, since it’s such a contrast with what’s come before, but it’s almost insistently unsatisfying


Susan Orlean writes “delusions of grandeur” in notebook as she smiles and listens to Cooper = sums up movie’s overreaching , but of course the film’s already thought of that since it’s all self-aware


and endlessly amused that there is a deliberately awful looking Nic Cage in the part of not only Charlie Kaufman , but also as an invented twin brother named Donald.


I feel like a jerk for disliking the movie because I like much of what it says (Hollywood movies are generally bad, screenwriters need to try harder), but some of that was just it’s cynicism becoming intoxicating


Opens with voice over narration of stream of conscious that’s never funny for a moment (worst though are hideous, easy denouement and banana-nut gags)


Hollywood approximates everything, including a chic anti-Hollywood attitude