Directed by: Spike Jones
Writing: Susan Orlean (novel)
Charlie Kaufman (screenplay)
Nicolas Cage .... Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman
Tilda Swinton .... Valerie
Meryl Streep .... Susan Orlean
Reviewed by: Stephen Lucas
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It seems as though Hollywood has embraced screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's imagination after seeing what a fine film was made out of his Being John Malcovich script. Critics embraced the film (even if audiences did not) and for a while there was an Oscar contender. My opinion of the film was, at first, indifference but after I thought about it a few days after seeing it, I thought it was a pretty good movie really. At the moment Kaufman is the "it" screenwriter with another critically hailed effort, Adaptation. So my initial thought of this new film, with Malcovich in the back of my mind, was that it sounded a bit more innovative and fun than his last film. But until I actually saw the film, no considerably strong feelings were evoked.
As you may have heard prior to reading this review, this is a film that's incredibly hard to explain exactly what it's about. Kaufman apparently was asked to adapt the Susan Orlean nonfiction book The Orchid Thief to the screen, but when he can't quite get it right, he just can't write the correct thing, he decides - out of the blue - to make the film about himself trying to write the screenplay. In between the moments of utter chaos (often times in Kaufman's own mindset) are inspired pearls of wisdom, observant proverbs to contemplate. Nicholas Cage stars as both Charlie Kaufman himself and the fictional twin brother (an aspiring screenwriter) Donald. Although Charlie is the expert, the one who knows the biz, Donald being a beginner makes it that much funnier when the two try and talk to one another. (While Donald works on completing his debut script - crap in Charlie's eyes, his brother knacks at his brain to complete a high-dollar book adaptation.)
Let it be known that the truth in this film has been stretched quiet a bit with some of the characters, such as Orlean herself, being portrayed by Meryl Streep. In the film she's depressed, doing drugs, and threatening lives by the time the film ends. The character made up in the movie isn't like the real writer herself. (Surprisingly, she allowed them to use her real name for the film as well. Brave girl.) Despite the factual dismissal, the character fits better into the obscure world that Mr. Kaufman himself created. And what a wonderful world it is, indeed.
Kaufman doesn't want to write an adaptation of the book that crams in sex, violence, car crashes, or any of the other typical ‘Hollywood' things, but ironically he does anyway from the angle he approached the material. The sheer greatness this film has is amazing, so full of life and energy. Small things like that, a mere line of dialogue that is so very, in every sense of the word, cool.
I may not see utter brilliance in the film like other critics perhaps may, but in foresight it was truly the most original film to have been released this year. No other than Kaufman could have taken a non-fiction book like The Orchid Thief and create a comedy so very wacky but still stay true to itself by connecting with its audience. The supporting cast (including Chris Cooper, who's been nominated by the Golden Globes) gives the remainder of the cast of characters a much needed quirkiness to be memorable. The rambling, insecure Charlie Kaufman portrayed in this film is a man that many can see themselves being at times (I know, I could) and so even for that, Kaufman deserves credit. And then on top of that, he goes on to make these ramblings witty and downright hilarious. Unlike several other Oscar hopefuls this season, I didn't leave seeing this film with much on my mind besides a load of admiration for Kaufman, which is a relief at times. Although Adaptation requires a commitment from its audience, the film is deserving of such behavior. Oh, and yes, this film is better than Being John Malcovich, much better.
Review by Stephen Lucas
January 16, 2003
copyright (c) 2003 Stephen Lucas, used with permission
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