The new film from the creators of Being John Malkovich has been praised up one side and down the other for its originality, daring, creativity and inventiveness. And I can’t deny that has all those things. I also can’t say I like it very much.
I admire Adaptation’s audacity and, God knows, I’m glad to see Nicolas Cage in something other than a war picture; but unlike a lot of other people, I just didn’t enjoy the experience. Worse, I am completely devoid of understanding the point of the whole enterprise. The trailer had promised a witty, clever comedy about the nature of creativity — especially collaborative creativity. The story itself never gets down to examining that premise; that intriguing theme is engulfed in screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s narcissistic wallowing in his own neuroses and perceived shortcomings. The resulting film — offering a bold, but overacted performance from Cage — kept seeming less like a genuinely brilliant conceit (though it’s certainly a conceit) than a desperate attempt to mine something from the ashes of a failed project.
Apparently, Kaufman and director Spike Jonze thought they had inherited the mantle of Fellini, whose own inability to decide on a film resulted in one of his most brilliant works, 8 1/2. Frankly, this crew isn’t even in the same ballpark. Where Fellini’s film was an inwardly directed meditation on his own obsessions that revealed much about the maestro, Jonze’s film is mired in the same kind of “inside Hollywood” pseudo-savviness that — for me anyway — made the much-praised Robert Altman film The Player an unpleasant, shallow, self-congratulatory affair.
At bottom, Adaptation is just too full of itself — too in love with its own cleverness, too jazzed-up on the kick of “boldly” creating gags the filmmakers know full well that 90 percent of the audience won’t get. What they ended up with here seems less a successful work of art than a cynically calculated cocktail-party movie. Is this really a film to be enjoyed for its own sake, or is it a movie that exists to be dissected over Campari and soda at The Club? And if so, then however cynical it may be to say, Adaptation can only be gauged a rousing success, since 90 percent of the critical populace has gone absolutely lollipops over it.
In hindsight, the previous Jonze-Kaufman collaboration, Being John Malkovich, was just as full of itself, but it compensated by brimming with comic invention — and it benefited from a tighter, yet more fanciful narrative. In fact, it was the story’s fanciful nature — involving a portal that allows one to enter actor John Malkovich’s mind for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dumped onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike — that made the film so richly compelling. Adaptation sorely needs that kind of fantastic-ation.
The idea of making a movie about the attempts of Charlie Kaufman (Cage) to carve a screenplay out of a largely plotless book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), is an interesting one, and it could have been profitably pursued had the real Kaufman resisted the temptation to turn himself into one of the most repellent characters ever to have the lead role in a film. (His secondary self — the fictional twin brother, Donald — is almost equally uninviting in a different way.) This idea, which cleverly incorporates the making of Being John Malkovich into its structure, is not in itself fantastic; the result is that all the whimsy of Malkovich is sacrificed to a plot involving the real-life Orlean in a story line that not only is fictional, but is finally so outrageously silly (if not outright stupid) that it doesn’t work as either fantasy or reality.
Adaptation isn’t awful, but it comes up wanting, and decidedly so. The film does deserve credit for sheer creative chutzpah. And the sequences involving Brian Cox as screenwriting teacher Robert McKee are undeniably funny (it’s definitely a hoot to hear him lecture against the use of voice-overs and the injection of a deus ex machina, only to have the film use both). But the film itself … I wanted to like it. I even expected to like it. Yet the best I could do was grudgingly admire the invention, and then be very glad when it was over.