"You're the king of making up crazy stuff," says an agent to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's fictionalized alter-ego in the brilliant meta-comedy Adaptation. That label has haunted the real-life Kaufman since audiences discovered his audacious original script for Being John Malkovich. Stepping even further into the hall of mirrors than Malkovich did, Adaptation will do little to help him shake that reputation. But once again, the "crazy stuff" hints at a much deeper emotional current running through Kaufman's work, a longing to escape the skin and experience the world with renewed passion. Instead of a few minutes inside Malkovich's head, Adaptation spends two hours inside Kaufman's tortured psyche as he tries to puzzle out a screen version of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, but ends up with a script about his failure to do so. (The film nonetheless remains faithful to the spirit of Orlean's book, which may be its most staggering achievement.) Nicolas Cage plays the dual role of Kaufman and his brother "Donald," a made-up character who taunts him like a devil on his shoulder, throwing his inadequacies into sharp relief. As the antisocial Kaufman labors to find a route into Orlean's sprawling text, Donald quickly becomes a Hollywood player, scoring with the make-up girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the Malkovich set and turning out a hot new serial-killer script ("Sybil meets Dressed To Kill"). After numerous false starts—including one tracking the evolution of Hollywood, and beginning four billion years ago—Kaufman gets the idea of inserting himself into the screenplay, making the movie into the story of its own creation. Beautifully integrated into the mix are selected excerpts from The Orchid Thief, with Meryl Streep as Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer who journeys to Florida to report on an obsessive horticulturist (Chris Cooper) who covets and breeds rare flowers, including the elusive "ghost orchid." Turning an adaptation of a highly regarded book into a movie about the creative process may strike some as self-indulgent, and Kaufman would be the first to agree. He'd also concur with any statements regarding his slouched posture, balding pate, social ineptitude, constipated writing habits, and cross-wired neuroses. But beyond Kaufman's hilariously brutal self-laceration and his equally vicious take on "the industry," Adaptation speaks volumes about the possibilities of storytelling and the transporting powers of great art. Working in concert with Malkovich director Spike Jonze, whose modest flourishes once again pay dividends, Kaufman strikes just the right balance between playfulness and sincerity, leaping freely from one absurd situation to another before pulling back on the reins. In lieu of adapting the unadaptable, Kaufman has written a twisted love letter to Orlean, whose book was not so much a source as a source of inspiration.
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