- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson ingratiated themselves at the Golden Globe Awards last weekend by adding slight notes of apology to their acceptance speeches. Miss Streep was an unexpected winner as best supporting actress for her performance in "Adaptation," Mr. Nicholson an expected winner as best dramatic actor for his performance in "About Schmidt."
Miss Streep played a fictionalized version of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean at the time she was gathering material for her book about orchid lore and social history titled "The Orchid Thief." The book became the source material for "Adaptation," directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. The actress extended a public apology to Miss Orlean for the liberties taken during the film's final sequences.
Mr. Kaufman, the most talked-about screenwriter in Hollywood these days, wrote himself into a corner by inserting a fictionalized version of himself into the plot a desperately self-conscious and melancholy screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage.
The extrication process involved transforming the Susan Orlean character into a criminal degenerate, a development that would have been impossible to anticipate from either her book or the first 90 minutes of the movie, a remarkably clever synthesis of faithful and fanciful episodes until that last, ruinous turn.
Mr. Nicholson's apology concerned the category in which he was competing for the award for his performance as Warren Schmidt in "About Schmidt." The film is derived from the novel of the same title by Louis Begley, and it was adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim Turner, whose satirical flair with such original screenplays as "Citizen Ruth" and "Election" has been rivaled in recent years only by the emergence of the Kaufman-Jonze partnership in "Being John Malkovich." Mr. Payne doubles as director of the scripts he writes with Mr. Turner.
The Golden Globes distinguish between comedies and dramas in a trio of categories, and Mr. Nicholson confessed to initial surprise at finding himself in the dramatic runoff. Like most who had seen it, he had thought "'About Schmidt' was a comedy."
In straying from its source material, Mr. Payne's film made a fundamental error. In Mr. Begley's novel, Al Schmidt is a New York investment lawyer and sophisticate confronting retirement and a marital loss with considerable resources, both financial and mental. In the movie, he is transformed into a stolid, thickheaded Nebraskan, a dubious change by Mr. Payne, who has set this film, like his earlier comedies, close to home in his native Omaha.
Al Schmidt had some intriguing character flaws, but it is awfully difficult to condescend to him, culturally or intellectually. It is all too easy to snicker at Warren Schmidt, a thwarted and lonely rube.
While Mr. Payne and Mr. Turner vulgarized Mr. Begley's novel from the first episode, Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Jonze ended up altering Susan Orlean's nonfiction book in ways that proved alienating and self-defeating only in the final stages. Oddly enough, what their script could have used was a clever and appropriate ending; the novel seemed to stop in its tracks. Right diagnosis, wrong therapy.
Bill Condon and Rob Marshall, who wrote and directed, respectively, the stunning "Chicago," solved a problem that had lingered for a generation when they transposed Bob Fosse's stage musical to film by formulating the musical numbers as feverish fantasies of the protagonist, Renee Zellweger's fame-hungry Roxie Hart.
Typically, writers tend to be gracious even when the movies wrench their material into grotesque or incoherent shapes. After all, the books remain in circulation, and the film versions are likely to attract a new wave of readers. The checks for the rights are always welcome, too. Miss Orlean and Mr. Begley both have been sporting about the damage inflicted on their books in the transition to the screen.
Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel adapted with enviable fidelity by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry, expressed his gratitude in a New York Times article that coincided with the Globes ceremony. It has to be flattering when your book emerges as the classiest art film of the season.
Even Mr. Cunningham's arbitrary method of linking episodes from the life of Virginia Woolf with fictional heroines in later time frames is enhanced by the time-traveling potential of the film medium and the dexterity of the adapters. The continuity is designed to shift repeatedly from Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and Stephane Dillane as Leonard Woolf in the early 1920s to Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep as emotionally distressed ladies in the late 1940s and the present, respectively. Deliberately coincidental remarks, gestures, occurrences and even sound effects bridge the transitions, and the interweaving is itself an aesthetic pleasure as manipulated by Mr. Daldry.
Ultimately, there's a conceptual fragility in the novel that the filmmakers can't finesse. Only the Woolf narrative eludes tear-jerking staleness and desperation. The fictional heroines entrusted to Miss Moore and Miss Streep don't measure up to Miss Kidman's portrayal of a real-life figure struggling to protect her sanity and vocation.
Biographical material has been heavily and for the most part successfully mined in the past movie year, starting with "Iris" and "The Rookie" in the early months of 2002 and continuing to the present with "The Hours," "The Pianist," "Antwone Fisher" and "Catch Me If You Can." All of these take dramatic license of one kind or another with their subjects. The biographical tilt also has produced celebrations of TV reprobates that one could live without: the late Bob Crane in "Auto Focus" and now Chuck Barris in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," also adapted by the busy Charlie Kaufman.
The salient flaw in the otherwise commendable "Iris" recurs a year later in "The Hours." Just as "Iris" devoted too much screen time to the younger Iris Murdoch and John Bayley at the expense of the far more interesting Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the elderly incarnations, "The Hours" errs in siphoning away screen time from Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane.
The divided perspective is scarcely an innovative storytelling device. The film version of Nick Hornby's comic novel "About a Boy," adapted by brothers Chris and Paul Weitz, proved as deft as "The Hours" at alternating the points of view of principal characters. In this case, the adult and juvenile leads (Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult) shared a time frame as well as an emotional crisis. The filmmakers borrowed the format used by Mr. Hornby while taking advantage of the fleet and humorous possibilities inherent in movie imagery and editing and these are the guys who supposedly represent crass movie farce because they made a mint off "American Pie."
I am reluctant to get too carried away about the quality of "The Hours" only months after a creditable and appealing movie version of A.S. Byatt's novel "Possession" has been largely ignored. Mr. Cunningham is clearly a lightweight compared with Miss Byatt.
One illustration is the unpersuasiveness of a character named Richard, a dying author portrayed in the film by Ed Harris. He supposedly is an obscure but distinctive poet and also the author of a massive roman a clef. Yet Mr. Cunningham includes no samples of the writer's work. Devoid of representative passages, "The Hours" is left simply stipulating the author's literary merit without dramatizing it.
Miss Byatt, in contrast, supplied a formidable set of extracts from the work of her fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, embodied very seductively by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle. Moreover, the "Possession" screenplay, by Laura Jones and director Neil LaBute, succeeded in condensing a long and intricate novel without getting bogged down in the literary ventriloquism perfected by the author. It made do with stirring excerpts from love letters, the idiom best suited to a romantic picture.
In addition, the filmmakers kept a better balance between the Victorian love match and its complementary love affair in the present, enacted by Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. Miss Byatt's Victorians tended to overwhelm her contemporary scholars. Mr. LaBute, showing an unexpected delicacy and subtlety with prestige literary material, restored the romantic parity that had eluded the original author without slighting his eminent Victorians.
In "Far From Heaven," another Golden Globe screenwriting finalist, Todd Haynes took a uniquely affectionate look back at a Hollywood prototype, the 1955 Jane Wyman-Rock Hudson tear-jerker "All That Heaven Allows." Mr. Haynes managed to re-create the look and mood of a Douglas Sirk melodrama while updating its social consciousness with subplots involving repressed homosexuality in suburbia and the stirring of an interracial love affair. I don't share Mr. Haynes' tenderness toward the original, which makes more sense as an object of good-natured mockery than contemplative veneration and improvement. However, if you must redeem a museum piece, you might as well express your infatuation as sincerely and cleverly as Mr. Haynes does.
Lest we forget, 2002 also was the year in which Jonathan Demme offered his homage to a durably satisfying and stylish movie, Stanley Donen's "Charade," and ended up with the excruciating "The Trouble With Charlie." In the process, he wasted what would have been a perfectly good title for a seminar about the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman.

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