In Adaptation, the new film from director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Nicolas Cage stars as . . . screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman can't find his way into an assigned screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Meanwhile, Adaptation occasionally cuts to Orlean (Meryl Streep) researching her book through interviews with its inspiration, oddball horticulturist John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a hyperintelligent redneck who stirred up controversy by stealing rare flowers from wildlife preserves. All of this, it seems, actually happened.
The film also depicts Kaufman sharing his home with his twin brother, Donald (also Cage), himself toiling away at a hackneyed serial-killer screenplay called The Three. As Charlie suffers from extreme writer's block and a laundry list of other neuroses, Donald becomes the toast of Tinseltown. These events seem less likely to have occurred, as Charlie Kaufman has no twin brother--despite the fact that Donald Kaufman is credited as Adaptation's co-screenwriter.
Jonze and Kaufman, the team behind Being John Malkovich, clearly thrive on such playful confusions of fantasy and reality. At various points in the film, Adaptation whisks us away to such historical landmarks as the birth of life, the formulation of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the filming of Being John Malkovich. Meanwhile, dream sequences abound, and the film threatens to become the film within itself. At one point, Kaufman refuses to graft some Malkovich-esque twists to a book he regards as a sensitive meditation on flowers and unfulfilled desire; he doesn't want this project to become like his other work. Viewers, of course, grasp the irony: We're watching it, and it already is.
Criticism of this film amounts to nitpicking; it's fun, creative, and particularly insightful in depicting a conflicted writer at work. That said, one gets the nagging, nitpicking sense that Jonze and Kaufman could push their material even further. Their films create the illusion that we've been everywhere and seen everything, but do so in an imaginative shorthand that stops just short of ecstatic perfection. Adaptation, for instance, could have brought The Three to life; instead, it merely drops a quotation or two. Still, the Pandora's box Kaufman opened with Malkovich and the sadly overlooked Human Nature gets more exciting with each outing. Minor quibbles aside, his collaborations with Jonze easily rank among the most humorous American films of the last five years.