There are people who care so passionately about something that it fills them up completely. And then there are the rest of us, who can never lose themselves that way, people who divide their interest and attention and always hold a little bit of themselves back to observe and judge.
“Adaptation,” like the book that inspired it, is about both kinds of people and the way that each sometimes longs to be in the other category. The book is The Orchid Thief by New Yorker author Susan Orlean. By nature, by culture — by definition — a writer is at the furthest end of the scale in the observer/judge category. Orlean begins to write about Lohn Laroche, a man who even by the fevered standards of those utterly captured by “orchidelerium” is utterly obsessed. She realizes that she is not just writing about Laroche or about orchids but about the nature of obsession itself. In a way, she becomes obsessed with obsession.
The main character in the movie becomes obsessed with Susan Orlean’s obsession with John Laroche’s obsession with orchids. He is Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), the Hollywood screenwriter hired to adapt Orlean’s book for the screen.
The real-life Kaufman wrote the beguilingly twisted “Being John Malcovich” and the all-but-unseen “Human Nature.” The movie opens with Kaufman’s attack of insecurity as he meets with a producer to discuss The Orchid Thief. As he struggles to adapt it, his self-doubt, underscored by the contrast with his confident identical twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle. But the real obstacle is not his weakness, but his strength. While his brother casually dashes off a ludicrous screenplay about a serial killer with multiple personalities, utterly unconcerned about issues like consistency, Charlie agonizes about the imperviousness of Orlean’s book to adaptation. Finally, he decides that he movie should be about that problem, and he proceeds with such girl-on-a-ketchup-bottle-with-a-picture-of-a-girl-on-a-ketchup-bottle thoroughness that in the opening moments, the screenplay is credited to both (the real-life) Charlie and (the fictional) Donald.
Like “Malcovich,” this movie has moments of bizarre humor in the context of profound and genuine questions about identity, inversion, inspiration, obsession, and meaning and meta-meaning and meta-meta-meaning. Kaufman loves writing for the same reason Laroche loves the orchids — for their difficulty and fragility. It has some sharp Hollywood satire and some wildy funny plot twists. This is the kind of movie that makes fun of emotional turning points inspired by platitudes but then, when it throws one in (in the middle of a jungle environment that is real and symbolic), it’s a very nice one: “You are what you love, not what loves you.”
The performances are marvelous, particularly Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as Laroche. Ron Livingston’s performance as Charlie’s agent is a small comic gem, Brian Cox is masterful as a screenwriting expert, and Judy Greer is radiant as an orchid-loving, pie-serving waitress.
Parents should know that the movie has very mature material, including very strong language, brief nudity, sexual references and situations (including masturbation and a porn website), drinking, smoking, and drug use. There is a brief but very explicit scene of a baby being born. The movie has quasi-comic violence, but characters are injured and killed. Characters break the law, including stealing from nature preserves and making psychotropic drugs.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we chose our passions – or whether they choose us. Do Laroche and Orlean envy each other? Does Charlie envy Donald? Why did Charlie the real-life screenwriter divide himself in two in the movie portrayal? Why did he take real-life characters like Susan Orlean and John Laroche and have their movie characters do things that they never did? What do you learn from Laroche’s reason for not fixing his teeth? If you were going to re-create yourself as a movie character, what would you write? This movie both uses and makes fun of many movie conventions – which ones did you spot?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing “Being John Malcovich” (very mature material) and other dark movies about Hollywood like “Day of the Locust” and “The Player.” They might also enjoy Cage in the face-switching movie “Face Off” and some other twin movies like “A Stolen Life” and “The Parent Trap.”