Even without the aid of Smell-o-Vision, Charlie Kaufman’s bedroom comes across as dank. A mulchy, humid cleft in the Los Angeles desert, it’s a place where shadows lie thick as the strata of leaves, which fall in clumps from books, magazines and scripts. Botanical specimens might root here, or movie projects–Charlie, a professional writer, is working on a screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief–though of what morphology, you can’t predict. Nothing’s likely to grow normally in this condensation of coffee, sweat and self-abuse.
Masturbation is too neutral a term, self-gratification too positive, for the penitential floggings that Charlie carries out here, steeping himself in his sense of inadequacy before women including Susan Orlean, whom he’s never met. He could have met her–she was lunching in a fancy restaurant one day when he happened to drop by for takeout–but Charlie fled, bobbling the paper bag, after learning of her presence thanks to a beautiful movie executive, about whom he’s also probably flogged himself. I say “probably” because we’ve seen Charlie converse with her. Sweat beads the size of mushroom caps gathered beneath his sparse and kinky hair. He smiled as if at a dog that was sure to bite him. He rocked a little in his chair, as if seized by an atavistic, Eastern European urge to beg help from a God who isn’t in the picture.
If life is a matter of the survival of the fittest, then Charlie must be an evolutionary dead end. But what if life is instead a question of Adaptation (to cite the title of the movie): an individual’s fitting into an environmental niche, or a writer’s carrying into a different medium another writer’s work? Then there might be hope for Charlie. There might even be a point, or an end, to the excruciating, joyless labor that he’s taken on himself.
Adaptation is, in fact, an adaptation of a real bestseller, The Orchid Thief–a plotless, meditative work of nonfiction–and has been written for the screen by the real Charlie Kaufman, who despite his complete absence from the book has made himself into the film’s central character. Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean; and Nicolas Cage, in two performances of contrasting brilliance, plays both the tortured, hypercerebral Charlie and his easygoing twin brother, Donald, whose doubtful existence could not be confirmed at press time, though he does share screenwriting credit. The direction (poised somehow between hyperbolic and deadpan) is by Spike Jonze, whose previous collaboration with Kaufman, Being John Malkovich, perhaps offers a portal into this new picture.
Part of the fun of Being John Malkovich came from a sense of Kaufman’s adventurousness, as he risked getting lost in his own screenplay. Having dreamed up the premise (one of the loopiest in film history), he set about writing without knowing where he might wind up. In Adaptation, Kaufman dramatizes that same situation. He accepted the assignment of turning The Orchid Thief into movie mulch; now he’s written a movie about how he didn’t have a clue how to proceed.
The indignities, the frustrations, the doubts, the coffee breaks: His fictionalized thrashings-about are so hilarious that they gave me an out-of-body experience. And then, in the end, they didn’t. Although Adaptation‘s last act cheekily supplies everything Charlie had claimed he’d never force into The Orchid Thief–hot sex, guns, drugs and a chase scene–I stopped reveling in the joy of invention and felt only a mounting claustrophobia, as the finale shut me irretrievably behind his high, moist forehead. Being John Malkovich was about experiencing, however arbitrarily, the life of another person. Adaptation is about Charlie’s struggle with a Susan Orlean he’s made up for himself, and with a twin who is, well, his double.