Art-house Nicolas Cage argues
with big-budget Bruckheimer
Nicolas Cage about the future
of his career.
Review written by: Alex Sandell
If you're into the quirkier side of film, Christmas 2002 may have you believing in Santa Claus again; only this time he's a powerful executive at one of the corporate owned "independent" studios and producing oddball flicks for the wildly eclectic. With the dream team of actor Jack Nicholson and director Alexander Payne in the brilliant, About Schmidt, and now the cinematic reunion of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the eccentric maniacs behind the seminal, Being John Malkovich, for the film, Adaptation, it's starting to become misleadingly easy to forget that those overblown "event" flicks ever existed. But don't start digging out your old John Waters' posters while touting the "second coming" of the indie, just yet ... we're only months away from, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde and, God help us all, The Fast and the Furious 2. So, in this short time we have to enjoy movies without a number after them, let's breathe in Adaptation like we would the soft sent of an orchid flower, and discuss its inventive charm.
Adaptation is an adaptation of the novel, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, the lady whose article, Surf Girls of Maui brought us the insufferably atrocious film, Blue Crush. Orleans', The Orchid Thief is a book about flowers, of all things. This is the sort of stuff that is more in the realm of Richard LaGravenese. Maybe he could team back up with Clint Eastwood, and the two of them could try to recapture some of that old, Bridges of Madison County magic (Meryl Streep wound up being in both films, incidentally). Hell, at the very least give it to that guy who wrote that boring golf movie starring Matt Damon, and see if he can put an entire theater full of eager customers to sleep, once again. Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature) would be the last person I would think Hollywood would go to to adapt such a novel, but to Kaufman they went, and out came the most inimitable adaptation of a novel in cinematic history.
Charlie Kaufman wanted to tap out a straight adaptation of, The Orchid Thief. He seemed to be fed up with the fictional hokum claiming to be "based on a true story" that Hollywood had been blanketing America with over recent years (ever compare the novel, A Beautiful Mind to the film?). Kaufman, as shell-shocked as the rest of the galaxy that he was assigned the duties of translating this dry novel into a screenplay, didn't know where to begin.
He sat at his typewriter and thought about coffee and muffins, rather than orchids and Orlean's story. He thought about his pot-belly, his balding head, but could not think about a faithful screenplay, no matter how long he stared at his sadistic typewriter. Kaufman began to panic. Could this be the end of his career? Is a film about flowers too flowery for communal enjoyment? Would he look bad in the trade papers? And then it hit him, Kaufman couldn't adapt the novel because he wasn't in it. The man was so narcissistic, self-loathing and consumed with other people's perceptions of him, that he couldn't simply write a screenplay about orchids; he could write a screenplay about orchids featuring him. Better yet, he could write a screenplay about orchids featuring him and his fictional twin brother, both screenwriters, arguing about what makes a good film, as he is typing an adaptation of a film about orchids that his fictional twin brother thinks needs more structure. Ah-hah! That's the ticket! And so Charlie Kaufman's adaptation of The Orchid Thief turned into a semi-true story about Charlie Kaufman writing an adaptation of, The Orchid Thief.
Now that everything sort of fell into place for Kaufman, why not get his previous partner in crime, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, a bunch of MTV music videos, the only director of a prestigious film to vomit on camera in the bonus feature section of a DVD), the hyper-spastic child of the music video generation to direct? Only one piece of the puzzle was missing. Who would play screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and his twin, Donald? It needed to be somebody conflicted in his own right, and who better to take on the role than the cinematic schizoid, Nicolas Cage. Kaufman giving himself over to another individual must have been tough, but I think he hit the nail on the head by choosing Cage to play both Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
Cage, through a noteworthy performance (or in this case, two noteworthy performances), becomes the physical and emotional embodiment of the insecure, Charles and the overly-confident, Donald. One of the brothers Cage brings to life is Donald. Donald's into selling action thrillers to the highest Hollywood bidder, while Charlie is more into the small, independent type film; the kind of stuff that may not make him the wealthiest screenwriter alive, but will turn him into a critic's darling, faster than Roger Ebert can type out a deferential blurb.
Those of you who can remember all the way back to 1995 may recall Nicolas Cage winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of the suicidal alcoholic, Ben Sanderson, in the grimly remarkable romance, Leaving Las Vegas. Those elderly film folk may also remember that there was a time people thought Nicolas Cage deserved to win an Academy Award. Cage was an edgy actor choosing roles in offbeat films such as, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona and Red Rock West. No one would have though that, when he took home the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas at such a young age, he had reached the apex of his career.
Immediately after becoming a "respectable" actor, Cage was plucked up by Holly-whore, Jerry Bruckheimer and paid big bucks to star as an action hero in, The Rock. Cage, forgetting what it was that got him there, abandoned the art houses of America for 20 million dollar paydays. With films like, Con Air, Face/Off, and Gone in 60 Seconds, it was obvious good old Nic no longer needed to express himself artistically, and all he rewarded us with, after we all rewarded him, was a bunch of increasingly lousy action pictures. Suddenly we had a Schwarzenegger complex in a Seymour Hoffman body. But fate stepped in and the mainstream sort of Budweiser swilling Midwestern rednecks began to wonder why they made a geek into an action hero. Nicolas Cage's movies began to bomb, and suddenly he came crawling back, on his hands and knees, to the art-house community, begging for a second chance. With Adaptation, he got it.
In yet another parallel reality closely-knitted into the numerous other parallel realities surrounding it, Nicolas Cage succeeds in adding a bit of his own turbulent career by playing his art-house self and sell-out self in the role of the twin brothers. One brother is always surrounded by women, while the other doesn't dare ask for a kiss. The brother with women on each arm is definitely "Nic Cage, Action Star," while the brother without the nerve to ask for a peck on the cheek is the Nicolas Cage of yesteryear. It's a nice way for Cage to ease back into the world he left behind as soon as it handed him an Oscar, and a great way for the real life Charlie Kaufman to get his point across.
Nicolas Cage can act, there's no doubt about it, and this is some of his best work to date. With his wonderful duo-performance, you really believe that Cage is two separate people, and can identify with his character Charlie's crises. Should he follow his fictional brother Donald's advice and give the audience car chases and murder in the movie he's writing, or should he stay faithful to the book that he's adapting?
In the course of the film, a lot of The Orchid Thief is adapted, in a fairly honest manner. Meryl Streep plays the book's author, Susan Orlean, and gives us another mind-blowing performance. Watching Orlean's story clashing with that of the screenwriter who is trying to adapt it is invaluably intriguing. As a matter of fact, the first half of this film is as good as anything out there. Unfortunately, Kaufman's screenplay begins spinning out of control in the final third and rapidly slides its way into an over-the-top fictionalized finale that becomes as predictable and tiresome as the thrillers that it's trying its best to lampoon.
Unlike, Being John Malkovich, a far better motion picture, the film couldn't keep the warped reality created inside of the confines of its well-structured lunacy to hold itself together. The movie goes past the strangeness that has been established and enters a completely new level of surrealism that destroys the suspension of disbelief it established in the first 75 minutes. While it's obvious Susan Orlean had to be a good sport to allow the climax that we are provided with, the audience may not leave the theater in the same sporting mood.
Adaptation is a great film gone wrong. While I would definitely recommend it for the unreserved originality of the first two acts; I would dissuade anyone from sticking around for the final third. Kaufman went to a place in his screenplay that I felt reluctant to visit. I can see this crap on some late-night cable TV movie, most likely basic cable, and it's a shame that all of the beauty weaving its way across your imagination during the majority of this picture is nearly washed away by the clichéd ugliness of its ending. Still, all orchids eventually wilt, and the wilting doesn't so much keep us away from them as it does have us longing for more, so get into the theater and see this film, and don't forget to stop and smell the flowers on the way.
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Text ©(Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].
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