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'Adaptation'

'Adaptation' is brilliant from beginning to middle

Friday, December 20, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The best movie ever made may well be the first two hours of "Apocalypse Now," Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Hearts of Darkness" into a parable about the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, the movie ran 2 1/2 hours in its original form. The ending made no sense. Neither did the man at its center, Marlon Brando as Kurtz.

 
 
'Adaptation'

RATING: R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images.

STARRING: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper.

DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze.

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com
/adaptation

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The making of the film was nearly as dramatic as the events depicted. The production was shut down by hurricanes and almost terminated by cost overruns. Martin Sheen, who played the film's central character, suffered a heart attack in the middle of production. Coppola, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, seemed to be turning into the madman Kurtz himself.

Speaking of sick puppies, let us turn our attention to Charlie Kaufman, credited as screenwriter along with his brother Donald of the new movie "Adaptation," directed by Spike Jonze. Charlie and Spike formed the creative team behind the wonderfully twisted "Being John Malkovich." It was about a man who finds a conduit through which one could briefly enter the mind of actor Malkovich, who often gives the impression of having stayed too long on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Oh, and Donald? He doesn't actually exist, except in Charlie's mind -- and in "Adaptation," where he is portrayed by Nicolas Cage as the twin brother of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Cage again), who is trying to write a film adaptation of a book by author Susan Orleans called "The Orchid Thief." It recounts the story of a Florida man named John Laroche who was arrested trying to poach orchids from a nature preserve in the Everglades.

Orleans is a real person, portrayed here by Meryl Streep. So is Laroche, vividly brought to life in an Oscar-worthy performance by Chris Cooper. "The Orchid Thief" is a real book. The real Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt it into a movie. He did so by writing a script about an endlessly self-critical screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who is hired to adapt a book called "The Orchid Thief" into a movie and founders spectacularly.

Stop the Mobius strip! I want to get off!

Not really. It makes a lot more sense when you watch it than when I try to describe it. Kaufman's script keeps peeling back layers of itself to reveal new connections between real life and reel life, new insights on the art of adaptation, new variations on the theme.

While Charlie endeavors at all costs to avoid Hollywood cliches, his annoyingly easygoing brother Donald takes a screenwriting class, devotes himself to formula and sells his first script almost effortlessly. At this point, Charlie finally agrees to let Donald help write the screenplay.

Alas, the rubber band is about to snap. Charlie embraces Donald, and "Adaptation" embraces all the movie cliches Charlie has been trying so hard to avoid. It's a deliberate step on the part of Jonze and Kaufman, a satire of what happens to the creative process when Hollywood gets hold of it.

But in so doing, the filmmakers also brutally deconstruct their own movie in midstream, which is either the height of cynicism or the nadir of self-indulgence.

Could it be that, like Coppola, the makers of "Adaptation" couldn't figure out how to end their movie? Are they immolating themselves in protest of Hollywood's misdeeds, like Buddhist monks in Saigon in the '60s? Or are they simply destroying their creation in order to save it?

The first hour or so of "Adaptation" is the best movie of 2002. Unfortunately, the movie runs 112 minutes. The horror. The horror. Or something.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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