Hollywood scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman is given the job of adapting New York journalist Susan Orlean's bestselling non-fiction book 'The Orchid Thief', the story of eccentric Miami orchid breeder John Laroche. At the time he is doing nothing but hanging around the set of Being John Malkovich, which is has also written, so takes the job on. But Kaufman finds producing a screenplay from Orlean's book a tremendously difficult task, and after weeks spent agonising on how to approach the material, begins to write a story of the writing process itself... with himself in the main role.
The above is both the true events that led to the writing of Adaptation, as well as the actual plot of the film. Kaufman and Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze did intend their version of Orlean's book to be their next film, but when this proved too difficult, fashioned a strange, fascinating black comedy, that plays loose with fact and fiction.
Part of the fiction is Charlie Kaufman's twin brother Donald, who despite sharing a screenplay credit with Charlie, doesn't really exist. In the film Nicolas Cage plays both roles as two very different people; Charlie is a neurotic, self-loathing, sexually dysfunctional misanthrope beset with anxiety over his job and place in the universe, while Donald is a happy-go-lucky flirt whose only goals are to make some money, score some chicks and have a good time. As Charlie slowly goes mad trying to find a way into Orlean's book, Donald starts writing his own script, an idiotic psycho-thriller that utilises the rules of screen-writing guru Robert McKee (another real-life figure, played here in a delicious cameo by Brian Cox), the kind of structural rules that Charlie despises.
Kaufman's struggle is interspersed with events from The Orchid Thief itself. Orlean is played by Meryl Streep, a role which finds her in rare comic form, while Laroche is brilliantly characterised by Chris Cooper, a chain-smoking, charismatic loner with no front teeth and an obsession for wild flowers. We follow Orlean as she is at first simply amused by the eccentric Laroche, and then slowly attracted by his intoxicating passion for orchids and life.
Nicolas Cage delivers the kind of performance we all remember him to be able to provide, and his ability to act against himself as the twin brothers is as skilled as Jeremy Irons' work in Dead Ringers. We feel Charlie's frustration, and come to love Donald's simplistic charm. There are cameos from John Cusack and Catherine Keener, but this isn't really a Player-esque Hollywood satire; it's more personal than that.
For 90 minutes, Adaptation is wonderfully entertaining, if often painful to watch. And then it goes very strange indeed, as Jonze and Kaufman gleefully toss in all the Hollywood conventions that Charlie Kaufman (the character) has railed against throughout the film — sex, drugs, gun fights, car chases, and ridiculously simplistic epiphanies. It's the way that Donald Kaufman or Robert McKee would have ended the film, but while clever, it's one step too far, and slightly betrays the audience's investment in the story. Nevertheless, Adaptation remains a challenging film, with tremendous acting and a devil-may-care attitude from its makers that one can't help but admire.
Real-name Adam Spiegel, Jonze first made his name as the director of some of the most notable music videos of the 90s, including The Beastie Boys' 70s cop pastiche Sabotage, Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet and Fatboy Slim's mall-dancing Praise You (in which he also starred). Jonze made his feature debut with the brilliantly bizarre Being John Malkovich in 1999, following it up with equally strange Adaptation in 2002. He also directed an all-dancing Christopher Walken in the video to Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, and co-starred in David O. Russell's war comedy Three Kings. His opening out of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are was widely admired, as was his computer love story Her. Jonze is also the heir to multi-million dollar Spiegel mail-order catalogue business.