Betsy Cass ponders social and cinematic adaptability in her re-view of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, which has 100% more Nic Cage in it than the novel from which it was adapted.


I hadn’t intended for this re-review to include so much of me. Maybe, like Charlie Kaufman, it’s because I don’t think I can find a way to do justice to the source material. It’s honest, layered and shockingly detailed in a way that’s almost not worth discussing. Just watch it, then watch it again, then watch it again and you’ll begin to have some idea about the depth and delicacy of what Kaufman has accomplished. I don’t have the words to opine on his achievements, so I’ll try to stick to the way it’s changed for me in the short decade since it was released.

I was in my mid-teens when the movie came out and while I loved film, it would be unfair to say I truly knew much about it. However, I’d firmly established the tradition of trekking to the movie theatre alone every weekend (although my parents or friends did have to drive me, since I didn’t have a license yet) to see whatever could pass as art or independent film at a Montana multiplex. On one particular weekend, I managed About SchmidtConfessions of a Dangerous Mind and Adaptation on three consecutive days. The first did nothing for me (although in retrospect, I was hardly the target audience), the second I willed myself to like (although honestly, I still think it’s a ridiculously fun film) on my love of Sam Rockwell alone, and the third I was determined to love because it was funny and it had Nicolas Cage and it was about film, dammit! Looking back, though, I’m almost ashamed at how little respect I had for the craftsmanship and creativity of the work.

Part of this is the fault of a young, uneducated mind. But much of it, clearly, is due to the meticulousness of Charlie Kaufman’s script. I’ve seen the movie almost half a dozen times (although it’s been at least five years since the last time), but it wasn’t until the latest viewing that I completely grasped how loaded every phrase in the film is. Without knowing where it’s going, it’s impossible to respect the amount of absurd detail present. You practically need to have the film memorized to do so. While this brilliant obsessiveness became fully evident this time around, it wasn’t what struck me most about my latest reviewing.

While I hadn’t experienced the full depth and bitterness of the Kaufman’s critique of Hollywood, I sure as hell knew it was there. And I certainly didn’t fail to notice that, even if this aspect went completely over your head, it was a highly entertaining and engaging picture. What is so evident now to me, perhaps because I am older and sadder, is the incredibly personal nature of the piece, while in the past I would have thought of it as anything but. Moments I would have openly laughed at before now seemed sad and affecting. Points where Charlie may have seemed pathetic are now unfortunately familiar.  Without the zany comedy and the commentary on the machinery of making film, what you’re left with is a surprisingly affecting rumination on loneliness and the consequences of choosing to engage with or shut out those around you. Not only that, but it examines a special type of isolation far detached from the histrionics of teenagerdom: where cloistering yourself from friends and acquaintances seems less like a choice and more like the essence of who you are. The question, then, is whether to force yourself to adapt or stay true to your nature.

Kaufman explores the conundrum through the lens of Donald. Friendlier and more outgoing, he’s the person people wish Charlie could be. While the character of Charlie gains respect for Donald by the end of the film, it would be a stretch to say Kaufman truly felt the same. This, too, is part of the farcical Hollywood ending. It’s no more sincere than the car chase/swamp shootout or Charlie’s final proclamation of love to Amelia (a scene which I’ll get back to later). This kind of growth only happens in the movies. Kaufman’s truly advocating that audiences stay in their small, comfortable, neurotic worlds. After all, look what happened to Donald after Charlie finally gave in to one of his schemes.

It’s a pretty bleak message for a movie that seems so lighthearted. Yet the brilliance of it is its use of comedy and commentary in order to prevent itself from collapsing under the weight of self-doubt and fear. Today, I too readily identify with Charlie’s struggles. But that, as Robert McKee might say, is not a film I want to watch for two hours. Kaufman knows this and expertly tempers the self-loathing and soul searching with adroit observations and skillfully clunky plot manipulations. It’s one of the greatest sleights of hand I’ve seen in a movie: you’ve been tricked into being gleefully entertained while watching someone fully bare their insecurities for the world to see.

It’s often tempting to shy away from watching a film repeatedly. You’re afraid you won’t be in the right mindset, that you’ll notice flaws you didn’t see before or that it won’t hold up after you know the endgame. Other movies grow every time you watch them, revealing new jokes or layers of joy.Adaptation has presented me with a unique variation. Had I not seen it several times before, I could not have appreciated the great craft and detail in the film. At the same time, during none of those previous viewings had I been at the right point in my life to fully identify with Charlie’s paranoia and doubt. Less a feature of going crazy and more a feature of growing old, I was the perfect target this time around. A more fully developed sense of the film industry and film history didn’t hurt either. So while I’m currently marveling at the perfection of what Kaufman, et al., where able to accomplish, I think I’ll have to hold onto the current feelings I have of the film for as long as possible. Then again, maybe it will surprise me with the ability to become a completely new film one more time.

Side Notes

• I exclusively focused on the writing in the main text of my review, but the film is held together by three truly phenomenal performances. Chris Cooper was on a hot streak when he won the Oscar for his portrayal of John Laroche, but I get the feeling that in a decade or so, people might seem perplexed passing over his win in the records. Of course, he deserved every award on the planet for this film.  Additionally, I know people still mope over Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York losing to Adrien Brody , but Cage is the clear winner in my book. Finally, I had never liked Meryl Streep before this film, but I’m now a bit of a fan. Not masked in a thick accent and ugly wig, this performance actually gave me a more honest sense of her.

• Who of you saw this movie in the theatres? The DVD version of this movie has one of the biggest post-theatrical run changes I’ve ever seen (up there with Edward Scissorhands and Igby Goes Down).In the end of the film, when Charlie finally confesses his love to Amelia, there was originally a boom firmly in the shot, directly between them. That is why a large part of Charlie’s head is cropped out on the DVD. Perhaps it played as too farcical, but it was clearly a comment on the unrealistically staged nature of the moment. I don’t know if Kaufman or Jonze was responsible, but it was a fairly definitive statement on the meaning of the scene and the film as a whole.

• Strangely, it had never occurred to me until now to wonder what Laroche and Orlean felt about their portrayals in the film. Clearly, they were both fine with it, but can you imagine how weird/wonderful it would be to have a bizarro murderer version of yourself in a major motion picture?

• Additionally, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to receive the first draft of that screenplay.  Given what it was supposed to be, it’s sort of a miracle the movie ever got made.

• Tilda Swinton looks so normal in this movie, which is so weird.

• “Charles Darwin? Evolution guy? Hello?!”

• “Done with fish.” I actually had a shirt made that said this in high school. I deeply identified with Laroche’s pattern of becoming totally obsessed with something then abandoning it seemingly at the drop of the hat.

• “Mom called it psychologically taut.”

• “You’re shinier than any ant.” “That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”