- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

Three years ago, "Being John Malkovich" introduced the team of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze as playful upstarts while satirizing such misfortunes as jealousy, unrequited passion and identity theft. Their encore project, "Adaptation," is comparably witty and enjoyable for the equivalent of feature length.
Unfortunately, the final half-hour, which does a 180-degree switch on your expectations and accumulating pleasure, is so disenchanting that you feel as if a ruinous, self-destructive sort of joke is being perpetrated.
In a sense, the filmmakers have paved the way for a shock-effect reversal, but spectators may not want to accompany them down this path. You can grow fond of the two sets of characters who are maneuvered ultimately onto a grotesque and highly unsatisfying collision course.
Mr. Kaufman has a sincere affinity for characters who wreck things. In the schizophrenic case of "Adaptation," he deploys a fictionalized, agonized version of himself in the wrecker role. Nicolas Cage plays a Charlie Kaufman whose voice-over anxieties permeate the soundtrack cleverly at the outset.
This solitary writer's anxiety stems from his inability to "lick" a nonfiction book, Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief." This is a discursive work about horticulture and the history and folklore of Florida that began as a New Yorker profile of a particular eccentric Floridian, a maverick orchid breeder, collector and poacher named John Laroche.
Ideally, the Charlie of the movie, probably not unlike the Charlie of real life, would prefer to fashion something cliche-free that departs from "artificially plot-driven" formulas. At one point he vows, "No sex, guns, car chases, drugs or false notes of hope at the fade-out."
Ultimately, he falls back on all those devices while stalking the movie facsimiles of Miss Orlean and Mr. Laroche Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper from Manhattan to Florida.
Charlie is accompanied on this errand by his houseguest and genetic torment, a maddening twin brother named Donald Kaufman, also impersonated by Mr. Cage, who excels at the doubling tour de force. Donald exemplifies what Charlie thinks of as movie ambition and sensibility at their most unsophisticated and mercenary. Charlie has been struggling to adapt "The Orchid Thief," but Donald is blithely surging ahead with a delirious thriller that proves an instant sensation with movie insiders.
When it's rolling along, the movie is easy to enjoy as an insiders' caprice. The filmmakers even return to the set of "Being John Malkovich" for a number of episodes. The last genuinely funny moment in the film finds Donald in Los Angeles on the phone to Charlie in New York, revealing that he and Catherine Keener (of "Malkovich") are having the greatest time playing Boggle on the patio.
The subsequent episodes boggle the mind as they sabotage the picture. It has been fun to shift between the Kaufmans and the "Orchid Thief" twosome. Mr. Jonze renders Miss Orlean's recollections about meeting and hanging out with John Laroche in a humorously straightforward way, and Mr. Cooper is a scroungy delight as Mr. Laroche.
The director is also deft at miniature documentary inserts about history and horticulture. In fact, he tosses off so many seemingly "large" topics, including a summary of primordial creation, that you're doubly mystified by the failure to keep an episodic plot from going haywire.
Things begin to misfire with a lackluster scene in which Donald pretends to be Charlie while interviewing Miss Orlean at her office in New York. Subsequently, the brothers track her to Florida, where Miss Orlean and Mr. Laroche suddenly are knee deep in lust and vice. There, the clumsy intrusion of the brothers leads to calamity not to mention gratuitous sex, guns, drugs and even ravenous gators.
Technically, the problem is that the "real" Charlie and Donald seem to intrude on a genuinely criminal Susan and John. It never occurs to you that the stakes are that extreme. For the longest time, you have just been enjoying the fact that Donald is a moronic rebuke to Charlie and Miss Streep and Mr. Cooper seem to be bemusing embodiments of their real-life prototypes. The idea that anything drastic or fatal should happen is unthinkable, despite the dire hints in the "no this or that" speech. The movie seems to turn on you, as if it were a pussycat suddenly transformed into a pit bull. The results are not a pretty sight.

***
TITLE: "Adaptation"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and interludes of graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Spike Jonze. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean.
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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