Cage has room to shine in 'Adaptation'

by Rebecca Leffler | 2/3/03 6:00am

I must start off by saying that I am normally not a Nicolas Cage fan. I was hoping that his 2000 movie "Gone in 60 Seconds" was actually a description of his Hollywood career, and I was disappointed to discover that "Moonstruck" was not a medical term denoting death by lunar impact. Yet, in "Adaptation," Spike Jonze's latest directorial display of genius, Nicolas Cage alongside, well, Nicolas Cage, gives the performance of his career.

"Adaptation" is a glimpse into the inner monologue of Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (of "Being John Malko-vich" fame), who struggles with the task of adapting a book by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean titled "The Orchid Thief." What is ostensibly a book about flowers turns out to be a stunningly original look at the simple beauty of life. It's a screenplay about a man writing a screenplay about a man writing a screenplay about a woman writing a book about a man and his orchids.

Sure, it sounds more complicated than Nicolas Cage's tattoos, but tremendous acting performances, powerful cinematography and a thoughtful script make this film a pleasure to watch. The action occurs simultaneously in the present (as Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt his screenplay based on Susan Orlean's already-completed book) and three years earlier as Orlean goes about writing her book. The two subplots eventually collide to produce one of the most mind-blowing scenarios ever to grace the big screen.

Cage plays both Charlie Kaufman, who is, in his own words, a "fat and pathetic" man unable to turn the book given to him into a screenplay, and his identical twin brother Donald Kaufman, a more outgoing and optimistic version of Charlie. The script plays Donald's inane Hollywood commercialism against Charlie's unconventional genius, and Charlie is torn throughout the film between the task at hand and his desire to be intelligently unconventional. Bald, fat, insecure and scared of women, Charlie Kaufman finds himself unable to adapt and consequently panicked at this inability. He also suffers from low self-esteem, which inhibits him from kissing Amelia, the wo-man he loves.

Meanwhile, his brother Don-

ald embodies all that Charlie is not: social, self-confident and unafraid of failure. In fact, Donald decides one morning that he is going to be a screenwriter, attends a seminar on screen-writing, writes a catchy yet utterly cliched script about a serial killer with multiple-personality disorder and immediately sells the script to Hollywood. As Charlie struggles with a severe case of writer's block, Donald starts dating a make-up artist he meets on the set of "Being John Malkovich" and cheerily goes on with his life.

Flash back three years earlier to Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who gradually becomes more and more intrigued by obsessed horticulturalist John Laroche and begins her book on the subject. We see scenes of Orlean writing her book juxtaposed with scenes of Cage reading her finished product, similar to the chronological madness in Streep's other recent cinematic delight, "The Hours." Streep is brilliant in her portayal of a woman longing for passion in her life, which she eventually finds in charismatic flower-lover John Laroche (Chris Cooper).

Cooper is very convincing in his unglamorous portrayal of John Laroche, a man lacking in teeth but certainly not in zeal. Streep learns through Laroche's exceptional wisdom that "Change is not a choice. It happens, and you are different."

"Adaptation" is a film about the process of writing. It is a film about the power of nature. It is a film about the pursuit of passion. But most of all, it is a film about life. When we go to the movies, we always get to see the finished product, but, in this mise-en-scene of incredible proportions, we get to see the creative mind at work.

As Charlie Kaufman tells his brother, "There are no rules, Donald. Writing is a journey into the unknown." And, for Charlie Kaufman, writing an adaptation of "The Orchid Thief" is indeed a journey. Charlie is certainly not the same man at the end of the film, and Nicholas Cage portrays this transformation with incredible grace.

And although Donald and Charlie Kaufman look identical, I was never confused as to who was who during the film, which I can only attribute to Cage's amazingly convincing performance as not just one, but two complex characters. In one emotional scene, Donald tells his brother, "You are what you love, not what loves you." And unless you thought "Saving Private Ryan" was a comedy, it will be hard to disguise your tears as you watch the emotive interplay between the two brothers.

But I still wonder if Donald really did exist or if he was merely Charlie's delusional creation of a self-imitating alter-ego. We know that while Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean are based on real people, Donald Kaufman was just Charlie's fictional creation for this screenplay. The film hints at this assumption, but it is up to the viewer to determine whether or not Donald Kaufman was a figment of Charlie Kaufman's utterly insane yet ingenius imagination.

Sex, drugs, adventure -- this film has all the ingredients of a successful Hollywood film. All you need is a cameo by Brad Pitt, and you have yourself the perfect movie.

At the start of the film, Charlie Kaufman says of "The Orchid Thief," "I just don't want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing." Cage, Streep, Cooper and director Spike Jonze prove that this movie is anything but just a "Hollywood thing." After seeing "Adaptation," I promise you will never look at orchids -- or yourself -- the same way again.