When I saw Being John Malkovich, I felt like the movie was smarter than I was. I knew it was saying something about power, celebrity and identity, but I couldn't exactly figure out what. And usually when I don't get something, I suspect that there's genius at work. Well, here comes Adaptation, the second collaboration between director Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman, and... I got it. So it's very good, but it's not brilliant.
The plot, at least part of it: Neurotic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played rather tenderly by Nicolas Cage - it's one of his best performances) is hired to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, a look at John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an obsessive plant poacher in Florida. Crippled with writer's block, Charlie - with help from his goofy twin brother Donald (Cage again), tries to make sense of Orlean's unfilmable book, and winds up writing a script about his attempts to write a screen adaptation of The Orchid Thief. You follow?
Had this been literalized, Adaptation would have been a snooze, another tired look at a) The Hollywood Game or b) The Craft of Writing. But Kaufman, as expected, throws in lots of bizarre twists and turns, matched by Jonze's playful (if straightforward) direction and game performances by an obviously top-drawer cast.
It's fun, but after a while I realized that, in its very unpredictability, the film became predictable. When Kaufman says at the beginning of the story that he doesn't want to write anything that has guns, car chases, sex, or heroes having epiphanies, you know you're going to wind up seeing all of that. But the thing is, the film seems to know that. It's even in the trailer! So you can't win.
I still encourage you to check out Adaptation because it's inventive, it's funny, and it has one possibly life-changing line of dialogue. It's also fun to try to draw the line between fact and fiction (the real-life Kaufman really was hired to adapt the real-life Orlean's book about the real-life Laroche) while watching. But the film wobbles when Kaufman tries to inject genuine heart into it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, especially at the end. The slight insincerity that comes when one aims for pathos in the middle of so much clever-cleverness stifles this film. But it's still very entertaining. And yes, writers will enjoy this film a lot more than non-writers will.