Dec 25, 2002 at 12:00 am

The need for conflict in a screenplay, any good teacher will tell you, is right up there with the need for character and dialogue. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote one of the most twisted movies in recent memory — Being John Malkovich — had such trouble finding the conflict in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a collection of essays he was hired to adapt into a movie, that he ended up making the movie about his trouble with the material.

So Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, stars Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman, who is writing a movie about Charlie Kaufman not being able to write a movie. This is only slightly more confusing an idea than a roomful of Malkoviches, and only slightly less confusing than the paradoxical nature of the impregnation of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series.

The joke in Adaptation is that it doesn’t matter how many layers of self-reflexivity are contained within. But this is not an “America’s Most Wanted” dramatization, and it follows the so-called rules of screenwriting — especially those of famed seminar-givers like Syd Field and Robert McKee, the latter of whom is gently sent up in Adaptation — with a slavish irony, all the while pretending to ignore them.

Kaufman the writer ensures the movieness of the movie by refusing to let reality truly interfere with his script. The true-to-life aspects of the characters — from New Yorker writer Susan (Meryl Streep) to orchid expert John Laroche (Chris Cooper) to Charlie’s twin brother, Donald (also Cage), and Charlie himself — are alleged but never confirmed. Is Charlie-the-character’s assessment of Susan-the-character the same as the real Charlie’s assessment of the real Susan, or is it liberty taken, or is it complete and total fiction?

Kaufman and director-soul mate Spike Jonze explored similar ideas in Being John Malkovich, which featured the titular actor playing a character named Malkovich who looks and speaks just like him (or was that the real Malkovich after all?). Kaufman also has another movie out this holiday season, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is ostensibly about the double life of TV producer Chuck Barris, who also claimed to be a CIA hit man. What Kaufman seems obsessed with — other than his own evident self-loathing, unless that too is a fiction — is the disconnect between imagination and reality, and how easy it is to blur. His twin, Donald, in the movie, appears to be exactly the opposite of Charlie — crude, insensitive, confident — but Donald also provides the film’s greatest moment of resonance. And although the real-life Donald has a writing credit along with Charlie the writer, the truth is that Donald Kaufman doesn’t even exist. Which makes his presence in the movie as foil for Charlie all the more significant and thematically appropriate.

In this, his second movie, Jonze continues to prove his ability to handle Kaufman’s strange aesthetic and the actors who must portray it. Streep and Cooper play off each other expertly, and they’re both Oscar-worthy. Streep, woefully absent from movie screens for far too long, slips back into her position as the mistress of American cinema with happy familiarity, and Cooper surpasses anything he’s done before with the use of a sadness-lined freight train of obliviousness and a sort of scrawny, Florida-trash paunch.

Cage, so recently the butt of jokes for a run of schmaltzfest roles and for marrying one of Michael Jackson’s throwaways, takes on the task of playing two distinct characters. Although both admirable and successful, this is not a new achievement for him. Cage not only played Ritalin poster child Castor Troy in John Woo’s Face/Off, but also did a complete turnabout when Castor’s face is switched with nemesis John Travolta’s character’s in the same film, a movie whose marquee performances are vastly underrated.

But, as things ought to be in pictures, Adaptation is always, at heart, all about the writing. Charlie’s torment over how to complete his assignment might be for comic effect, but it’s comedy of the painful, recognition-of-self variety. Kaufman has gotten a handle on the absurdity that infected Being John Malkovich and constantly threatened to send that movie spinning out of control. In Adaptation, he manages a more humanistic vision of the world, and his creation of a fictitiously non-fiction world reflects reality more than most of us will ever know.


Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].