Whether it be a student with an essay assignment, a screenwriter, an author, or a film critic trying to throw together 500 words by deadline on the latest summer dud—writer’s block is a familiar sensation for most of us. Some of us pace. Some of us procrastinate. Some of us sit in front of our computers or typewriters and rip our hair out from the roots.
Charlie Kaufman did all of this. And then, he made a movie about it.
ADAPTATION, which plays tonight at the Brattle as part of their phenomenal ‘Nicolas Cage: Greatest American Actor’ repertory series, is an ingenious film that stirs, teases, and explores the elements of creative development and human candidness via Kaufman boldly/neurotically placing himself into what began as an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s novel, “The Orchid Thief.”
This was back in the early-to-mid 90s, back when Kaufman was tapped to adapt the novel with Jonathan Demme on board to direct. But as Kaufman spiraled into a serious case of writer’s block, he found “The Orchid Thief” impossible to turn into an adapted narrative screenplay.
So he eventually wrote a film about his troubles. ADAPTATION has a grand, immersive quality to it, filled with actual quirkiness (before JUNO came around and ruined that word for everyone). Getting lost in these characters’ minds is something that Kaufman masters effortlessly in his script, and director Spike Jonze brings this scrutiny to the screen with an absolute craft for visual emotion.
And it all comes to life through a collection of brilliant performances—topped, of course, by Cage, who offers two performances for the price of one ticket with this particular film.
Playing both Kaufman and Kaufman’s fictional twin brother Donald, Nicholas Cage has the ability to bounce back and forth with Nicholas Cage while also lending individual gravities to each of these characters—with all their respective idiosyncrasies and psychological hiccups. It is arguably one of the best performances of his career.
The character of Donald, I suspect, is mainly a personification of everything Charlie Kaufman loathes about formula, Hollywood screenwriting. Charlie is shown in the movie speaking into tape recorders and fixatedly pacing around his room, while Donald attends screenwriting seminars held by Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) and gets signed for his spec script for a hackneyed psychological thriller called “THE 3”
Kaufman throws these countless fictional plot points in with true stories and real characters. Donald isn’t real, but “The Orchid Thief” author Susan Orlean is—played here in a great performance by Meryl Streep. Kaufman layers his own troubles with adaptation and mirrors it with a fictional subplot involving Orlean’s relationship with John Laroche, the subject of her book and a character played with infectious tenacity by Chris Cooper.
Adaptation, relationships, the creative process but more importantly the human process—Kaufman has mastered the emotional and intellectual properties of his little meta-fueled mind to craft a truly individual screenplay with ADAPTATION which he humorously submitted officially as being penned by himself and his fictional brother.
Needless to say, ADAPTATION just might be the most daring, entertaining, and cerebrally unmatched thing to ever result from a case of writer’s block. – Greg Vellante and Donald Vellante
ADAPTATION screens tonight, 6/19, at 4:30, 7:00 and 9:30 PM. The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA. 02138