directed by Spike Jonze
(Columbia TriStar, 2002)

Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief is about orchids, yes, but it's also a rumination on life, on possession and obsession, on mystery, on passion. And it is, as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is rapidly learning, impossible to turn into a coherent, creative screenplay.

What it will become is Adaptation, Kaufman's musings on the process of living and writing -- on, well, adaptation. But what the film is about is the process itself, much more than about The Orchid Thief.

Adaptation mixes reality with fiction more readily, and with more gusto, than just about anything else that's come along in recent years. It gives Charlie Kaufman a twin brother, Donald (both are played by Nicolas Cage), and puts faces to both The Orchid Thief's author, Orlean (Meryl Streep), and to the central character of The Orchid Thief, John Laroche (Chris Cooper).

As Kaufman stumbles his way through fits and starts with his script, we follow Orlean as she adapts a New Yorker article into a full-length book. She, in turn, is following Laroche through the swamps of Florida in search of rare orchids, plants that will fetch a fortune.

It doesn't take long before Adaptation becomes wrapped up in its blend of truth and invention, with The Orchid Thief's real-life characters finding themselves mired in situations that never occur in the book -- or in their real lives, for that matter.

The fictional Kaufman's life starts to spiral out of control in a way he'd never allow in his scripts (Car chases! Killings! Sex! Drugs!) in a parody of movies that blows through conventions of believabilty and the concept of leaving well enough alone. Convoluted, sometimes, yes. Creatively twisted, for sure.

Cooper often plays military and government secret service types (see The Bourne Identity, Lone Star or American Beauty's Col. Frank Fitts), but here his brilliant, toothless, renegade outsider is just as intense. Streep is alternately proper and passionate, the loneliness of Orlean palpable. And Cage, as the twin Kaufmans, makes even writer's block enjoyable -- as long as it's someone else's.

When Charlie Kaufman first sits at his typewriter to begin the screenplay, he stares at the blank paper.

"I'm hungry," is all his brain can muster. "Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That's a good muffin."

Later, in a burst, he types one scene opening in a 20-second frenzy.

"That's it," he says to himself. "I need a break."

Sometimes the writing flows. Sometimes life flows. For Charlie, the process is about to rip both writing and life apart.

Adaptation isn't The Orchid Thief. Who knows if any of its script drafts ever were, to any extent. What it is is an entertaining piece of off-kilter creativity that matches easily Kaufman's previous work, like Being John Malkovich or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, both of which bend reality in unexpected places.

Is it real? Sometimes it doesn't matter.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 3 January 2004

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