Adaptation – 2002 – dir. Spike Jonze
The greatness of Nicolas Cage comes from many things, but the thing that sticks out most to me is his willingness to risk being awful. A quick perusal of iMDB will show that Nicolas Cage has been in many truly awful movies, and a quick Youtube search will show that he excels at giving these awful movies more entertainment value than they deserve. Adaptation, by far one of the best movies Cage has stared in, is amazing because it spends so much time on the verge of being spectacularly awful, managing to tread that very thin line between the disaster it could have been and the modern classic it manages to be.
How could Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze have screwed this movie up? Well, for one thing, there’s two roles played by Nicolas Cage in the movie. One Cage is a good enough indicator a movie could suck, so two? And the two Cages have big emotional conversations with each other, which is just so crazy it should not work (that it does work does not make it any less crazy).
On to more substantive problems, there’s the issue of the source material. The Orchid Thief is not a cinematic book, as the movie repeatedly points out. The idea to make the movie about Charlie Kaufman making a movie of The Orchid Thief? That’s interesting. But interesting doesn’t guarantee being good, and the idea could easily have turned out, as the Cage-Charlie Kaufman character recognizes, as “self-indulgent, narcissistic, and solipsistic.” When I first watched Adaptation, I spent about half the movie fearing it was going to be just that.
The movie starts with Charlie’s voice-over monologue about how he’s unoriginal, unhappy, pathetic, fat, and bald. It’s a pretty funny monologue, but the first time I watched it I got quickly annoyed with the writer/character’s constant stream of self-obsessed, self-hating babble. Other movies with self-deprecating humor I can get into more easily; I loved Annie Hall, for instance, from start to finish, and that movie opens with Allen’s character complaining about himself. But Annie Hall is never pretentious, and after a seemingly pointless montage of the evolution of life on earth leading up to Charlie’s birth, it’s easy to worry that Adaptation is. The introduction of the second Cage character, Charlie’s fictional brother Donald, only creates further worries. Donald has some of the funniest lines in the movie (“it’s like a battle between motors and horses, like technology vs. horse!”), for sure, but his role as the crappy screenwriter who makes popular movies at first only seems to serve the role of elevating the annoying Charlie as the Troubled but True Artist.
It turns out those worryingly pretentious early scenes, and possibly the entire movie itself, are part of the movie that’s being written in the movie. This gradual reveal started to make me less annoyed and more impressed with the movie, but it was the scene in the screenwriting workshop that made me fall in love with the movie. At first it seems to be Charlie’s lowest point, stooping himself so low as to attend the workshop that inspired his brother’s schlock. It also appears to be the low point of the movie, as the self-hating monologuing loses all pretense of humor to just a string of annoying insults. Just when I was wondering if the building cleverness of the movie was about to go out the window, then the workshop leader says this line: “…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you.”
At this point I’m pretty much cheering. For those who haven’t seen the movie before, I don’t want to spoil anything that happens after this point, but suffice to say it deconstructs all of Charlie’s up-his-own-ass philosophy and becomes a real movie, silly and self-aware yet exciting and surprisingly powerful. It’s kind of a miracle just how great the movie ends up working. Even the last shot, which should be the most trite possible ending to the film, manages to work thanks to good directing and a fitting musical choice.
If there’s a message to Adaptation, it’s about the need to break rules. Charlie sets off to do just this at the beginning, to avoid Hollywood cliches or really any plot for the sake of fidelity to the meandering book he’s been assigned to adapt, but finds himself in a rut due to his own self-imposed rules. When he, and the movie by extension, ends up breaking all of his own rules, it’s wonderful. Even breaking a few of the rules of the workshop instructor who inspires him to break his own rules proves rewarding. It’s this message that’s just so very Cage, a man who does not seem to have any rules regarding what roles he’ll take.