The Truth About Charlie

A tale of two tales: Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage in 'Adaptation'
Columbia Pictures

Not often does the chance arise to cite Donald Rumsfeld as an expert on the movies. Yet this latter-day Strangelove carries an explosive payload of human wisdom. "If you can't solve a problem," Rumsfeld has said, "ask a bigger question."

Or maybe the Don of our military family didn't say that, exactly. Chalk it up to a rummy memory, but frankly, I can't remember the quote in any kind of word-for-word way. For instance, I could have sworn I once heard Rumsfeld say that the Department of the Fatherland would be setting up detention camps in Guantanamo Bay for anyone with a completed master's degree in social work or an affiliation with the Unitarian Church. Maybe he said it, or maybe he just hired Admiral Poindexter to turn the idea into a database. Reader, you can tell this introduction is slipping the noose of logic like Osama riding a mule train out of Tora Bora. Which is a problem I'm having trouble solving. So allow me, please, to ask a bigger question: What the hell am I talking about?

I'm talking about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his reflexive new movie Adaptation. Hired by Jonathan Demme's production company to pen an adaptation of Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, Kaufman encountered a problem: He couldn't bang out a decent word. Faced with an acute case of mental constipation, he asked a bigger question: Why can't I write an adaptation?

I could go right ahead and answer that--and, in a moment, I will. But in the spirit of narrative suspense, I'll start with a separate but related question: When was the last time you could put a possessive apostrophe-"S" next to the name of a screenwriter? Answer: Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. (And no, Bram Stoker didn't write Bram Stoker's Dracula any more than William Shakespeare wrote William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.) Is "liberal" Hollywood slighting director Spike Jonze for having failed to get Al Gore elected president with the biopic he made for the Democratic nominating convention? What in the name of Michael Eisner is going on when a screenwriter is collecting industry recognition for a piece of cinematic art? Aren't there laws--or at least Screen Actors Guild rules--against such aberrant auteurism?

Well, the firmament of stars won't shoot you if you make them shine more brightly, which is another way of saying that Kaufman has turned himself--and his writing dilemma--into a juicy screen role. Nicolas Cage plays flummoxed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who has been hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief. When we first encounter him, he's reciting a litany of woes in a hushed intonation that seems cribbed from This American Life: "Life is short; I need to make the most of it. I need to turn my life around. My life is a cliché." If you've never had the misfortune of experiencing it yourself, I can assure you that this is the inner voiceover of writer's block.

Now, on the surface, Cage may not seem credible as a frustrated writer. Let me modify that: Though the unhappy-go-lucky screen presence of the former Mr. Lisa Marie Presley has never suggested a meditative scribe, he has got the hangdog frustration down pat. As Charlie, Cage schleps around his house in a pained waddle, as if someone had just grabbed his testicles and taken an exploratory squeeze.

In a sense, this gesture is what the Susan Orlean character, played by Meryl Streep, has tried in her own life by entering the cultish world of Florida flower collectors. A little elaboration is in order. Based on the appearance of their seedpods, orchids are named from the Greek word orkhis, meaning testicle. That's just one of the fascinating insights to be found in Orlean's book. (I dare say--and Kaufman would probably concur--that the book might have made a great movie.) Though she also offers a peripatetic guide to the history of Florida's Indians, the ecosystem of Southern swamps, and the global adventures of 19th-century gardeners, it's the nature of obsession that's at the core of her investigation. Just as Charlie is chasing the mysterious spirit of The Orchid Thief, Orlean is pursuing the orchid thief himself. He's a crude and arrogant nursery man named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who has raided the Fakahatchee Strand State Park of its flowers under the guise of collecting specimens for a protected tribe of Seminole Indians. Why, Orlean wonders (in book and film alike), can't she grab life by the orchids like such pathologically driven plant people?

With her pale, chilly exterior, Streep makes Orlean seem burdened by her intellect and her upper-middle-class remove from Laroche's messy world. When we see her with her husband at a Manhattan dinner party--the white wine and black clothing are damning social markers--she seems both in her element and unhappy to be in her element. Standoffishness would be all but fatal in a real reporter, whose greatest gift is the ability to trick people into being at ease. But in Adaptation, it echoes Charlie's own anxiety about interacting with the world. This is a guy so burdened by self-consciousness-- "I have no understanding of anything but my own self-loathing," he says disgustedly--that even his sexual fantasies are awkward. We witness this in a hilarious series of masturbation sequences. (If you've never had the misfortune of experiencing it yourself, I can assure you that this is the favored distraction from writer's block.)


Just as the swaggering Laroche acts as a goad to the timid Orlean, Charlie is tormented by the presence of his freeloading, identical-twin brother Donald (played by Cage in goofy mode). While Charlie's script wages unwieldy combat with the ponderous history of human evolution, Donald hacks out a moronic serial-killer screenplay called The 3. (Naturally, it sells in the "high six-figures.") And while Charlie sits agonized outside his date's house, excoriating himself for not spending the night, Donald cheerfully beds a makeup artist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who, he brags, works in "the movies."

That term--"the movies,"--transforms the entertainment industrial complex that Charlie dreads into the magic kingdom of our imagination. And it hints at the paradox of what it means for Kaufman to make such inventive and commercially outlandish movies as Adaptation, Human Nature, and Being John Malkovich. "The movies," as Donald understands them, are a place where you picnic in the backyard with celebrities like Catherine Keener, win easy fame and fortune, and get laid while you're at it. Kaufman seems to understand that that should be fun, yet somehow isn't. And so, in a comic act of contrition, he sends his alter ego Charlie off to a screenwriting seminar hosted by foul-mouthed formula guru Robert McKee (a wonderfully blustery Brian Cox). There he learns to follow the rules of the game: that tropes aren't tripe, that banality is profound. The event changes Charlie's life.

It's also the turning point for the picture, as the dam of Charlie's writer's block breaks open in a flood of car chases and drug trades and man-eating gator attacks. Innocent, happy, clueless Donald has stolen The Orchid Thief and taken over the movie. What are we supposed to make of the fact that the screenplay that liberates Charlie is patent schlock? Or of the irony that Kaufman couldn't bear to write that script himself? Can't answer that one? How about a bigger question, then? Will Hollywood and its critics, enamored as they are with Kaufman's boundless ingenuity, be honest enough to admit that Adaptation, like so many adaptations, may not measure up to the book?

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