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'Being' an Insider

The creatively twisted minds behind "Being John Malkovich" give a Hollywood insider's take in "Adaptation."


But, at times, this Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman film is so much an insider's take on the creative process — or lack thereof — in contemporary mainstream cinema, it feels as if the intended audience isn't really you and me, but rather the filmmakers' Hollywood cronies.

There's also something slightly smarmy about the movie's last act, which mixes contempt for Hollywood's demand for happy endings with its own hefty dose of mawkish Tinseltown-style sentimentality. So unsatisfying is this final act, you can't help but wonder which the filmmakers lost first — their inspiration or their nerve?

It's no secret that "Adaptation" grew out of Kaufman's personal angst and failed attempt to turn Susan Orlean's nonfiction best seller, "The Orchid Thief," into a working movie script. As Kaufman's frustrations and failed efforts mounted, the Orlean project gradually morphed into a screenplay about himself (loosely fictionalized, one certainly hopes!) and the crazy, demanding, degrading world of scriptwriters.

As the end result of Kaufman's trials and tribulations, "Adaptation" is not only blessed with superb acting all around, but also with Jonze's brilliant direction. As the inhibited, neurotically self-loathing Charlie, Nicolas Cage does his best work in years. We believe it when Cage presents us with a Charlie who's suffering so deeply with writer's block that he can't even bring himself to kiss Amelia (Cara Seymour), the pretty musician who clearly adores him.

Charlie's life takes a decided turn for the worse with the unexpected arrival of his identical twin brother, Donald (also Cage). His polar opposite, Donald not only crashes at Charlie's house, but also announces that he, too, has decided to pursue the same career path as his brother and become a screenwriter. A decent enough but superficial fellow, Donald is completely devoid of any hang-up about artistic integrity. Consequently — and much to Charlie's chagrin — Donald rapidly becomes a Hollywood success story. Before you can say "John Malkovich," he's getting dates with gorgeous gals and practically projectile-vomiting out a sleazy, serial-killer script with real commercial prospects.

Jonze and Kaufman intercut all of this current action with flashbacks from "The Orchid Thief" about writer Orlean's (portrayed to perfection by Meryl Streep) life-changing encounter with toothless Florida orchid-fanatic John Laroche (Chris Cooper). In despair, with nothing to give the beautiful film executive (Tilda Swinton) who hired him, Charlie decides the way to solve his crippling case of writer's block is to inject himself into the script. The way to do this he decides is to finally meet Orlean, with whose book-jacket photograph he has slowly become obsessed.

Every single performance in "Adaptation" is first-rate, and Cooper, a long-standing favorite of indie master-filmmaker John Sayles, here steals every scene he's in, even when he's sharing the screen with the likes of Streep. Weirdly charming — and without a tooth in his head — Cooper captivates with a nonchalant ease.

While "Adaptation" does indeed break many of the "rules" of Hollywood screenwriting, it never makes the mistake of taking its own unconventionality too seriously. And if what "Adaptation" has to say about the process of adaptation isn't nearly as insightful as its smartly sophisticated PR would have us believe, well, it does feature what must be the most painfully funny, dead-on depiction of writer's block ever. Although cerebral where "Malkovich" was surreal, "Adaptation" remains one indisputably and diabolically clever comedy. And hey, it doesn't get any better than that. Trust me.

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