Flower Power

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Review of 'Adaptation', director Spike Jonze

'Adaptation' is a multi-layered black comedy by director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose previous offering was the wonderfully inventive 'Being John Malkovich'.

The film is based on the true ordeal Kaufman encountered while trying to adapt Susan Orlean's book, 'The Orchid Thief'. The latter is a passionate study of wild orchids and focuses on a charismatic jack of all trades named John Laroche, who is busy hunting for orchids in the swamps of Florida.

Writing the screenplay posed a number of problems for Kaufman as he struggled to make a movie about exotic flowers into a critical and engaging success. Stress, depression, panic attacks and writer's block set in. Kaufman resolved his dilemma by turning his struggles to adapt the book into the actual screenplay and as a result becomes the main and pivotal character. So effectively the screenplay he is writing in the film is the one we are watching simultaneously on the screen. This is a bizarre but clever device.

There are some excellent performances on display. No doubt Nicolas Cage--who plays Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother Donald--will get the lion's share of the praise, as it is one of his best acting achievements to date. But let's face it, Cage has provided some mediocre and lacklustre performances in the past. Meryl Streep (who plays Susan Orlean) also puts in an impressive performance, though I am sure everyone will soon tire of the trailers showing her mimicking a telephone dial tone while spaced out on drugs. However, the most believable character is Chris Cooper's semi-toothless rogue John Laroche.

'Adaptation' has two main plot lines--the romantic developments between Streep and Cooper, and the comical and depressing relationship of the Kaufman twins. Donald Kaufman is also a budding screenwriter but is fairly talentless, sapping his brother for plot lines and characters. After attending a 'how to write a screenplay' course he churns out an awful, cliche-ridden murder mystery.

Charlie is the mirror image of his brother. He doesn't want car chases, guns or drugs in his screenplay but wants to be honest to the characters in Orlean's book. This difference in approach provides a welcome sideswipe of the Hollywood studio system. Each year this industry churns out dozens of formulaic films like Donald's. This is not surprising as the studios' primary motive is to make a healthy profit. As a result Hollywood tries to avoid any risky ventures and is keen to fund tried and tested genres. Special effects and star names are the order of the day, along with truckloads of tied-in merchandise.

One of the slight let-downs of the film is that the last half hour descends into the cliche Kaufman claims he wants to avoid, such as the car chases, the guns and the drugs, so that the film becomes a mad gumbo stew of David Attenborough's wildlife programmes, 'Crocodile Dundee' and 'Deliverance'.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging and intricate film, albeit one which at times is difficult to keep up with. It rapidly moves from one story to another, jumping back and forth in time, with an odd clip of Darwin and the mass extinction of the dinosaurs thrown in. Interestingly, the studio executives had no idea Kaufman had written such a bizarre plot and believed he was delivering a straightforward adaptation of Orlean's book. The failure of Hollywood is that although it can sometimes produce highly original and well crafted films such as this, they are as rare as the very orchids Orlean's hero, John Laroche, is trying to track down.