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Friday, December 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Adaptation' gives 'Orchid Thief' intoxicating twist

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


***
"Adaptation," with Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Cox. Directed by Spike Jonze, from a screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman, based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean. 112 minutes. Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images. Pacific Place, Guild 45th, Redmond Town Center.

I've never actually been lost in a swamp, but after viewing Spike Jonze's gloriously twisted "Adaptation," it's easy to imagine the experience. The movie starts quietly and easily, as if it knows where it's going, then heads off in an odd direction, then back again — but now things look different from before, so we start to wander in circles, knee-deep in murky water and a bit dizzy from the heat of all the ideas, and finally give up ever finding solid ground. "Why can't there be a movie simply about flowers?" whines the film's hero, a frizzy-haired screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. Well, maybe there could, but it couldn't possibly be as intoxicating as this one, even if we do get hopelessly lost by the end.

Charlie Kaufman, as fans of "Being John Malkovich" may recall, is an actual person who in real life was hired a few years ago to adapt Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief," about an orchid collector named John Laroche who prowled the Florida swamps. (Susan Orlean is also a real person. So is John Laroche, whose fate is most decidedly not the same as what is depicted in "Adaptation." But I digress.)

So, Kaufman, in real life, sat down to adapt "The Orchid Thief," and quickly came down with a first-class case of writer's block. On the kind of mad whim that late nights and impending deadlines can cause, he decided to write himself into the screenplay, as a screenwriter frustrated by trying to adapt "The Orchid Thief." Soon, Orlean — whom Kaufman had never met — entered the screenplay as well, as did Laroche, and Kaufman's agent, and the studio executive who commissioned the screenplay, and many other people, including Kaufman's twin brother, Donald, a fellow screenwriter who may or may not have a real-life counterpart.

And from all this madness came "Adaptation," probably the most creative and noncommercial screenplay to be embraced by a Hollywood studio in years. Nicolas Cage, in an effortless-looking tour de force, plays both Charlie and Donald; the former a gifted, self-loathing neurotic, the latter a cheerfully self-confident dolt. They share Charlie's sparsely furnished house in L.A., where Donald all but whistles at his computer and Charlie stares down at his typewriter with a desperate panic. "OK," he says to himself, fingers poised. "I need to establish the themes." The paper remains blank. The panic grows.

Meryl Streep has a lovely, amused playfulness as Orlean; Chris Cooper, minus his front teeth, is marvelous as Laroche, bellowing out what could well be the best line of this or any year: "I renounce fish!" Spike Jonze directs at a breakneck pace; mixing murky interiors (are we inside Charlie's portal, like Malkovich?) with sun-drenched swamps. But the star here is Kaufman's screenplay, unfolding as if directly from the onscreen Charlie's typewriter — or perhaps Donald's, as guns and sex and life lessons begin to invade the story. Who's writing this movie, anyway? Never mind, just keep writing.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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