Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston
Being a writer includes having the obligatory phase of lacking inspiration or facing writer’s block. At times that block can feel as insurmountable as a mountain and Charlie Kaufman manifests that insecurity in this whimsical and almost fantastical film that looks into the writing process and what excellent writing should be.
After being tasked with adapting a novel to the screen, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles on how to bring this story to life. It certainly doesn’t help when his socially adept and more confident twin brother, Donald (also Nicolas Cage), comes to stay with him. As Charlie continues to brood over this adaptation, Donald seems to strike success in writing content that Charlie deems as trash.
I could not believe what I was watching when first experiencing Adaptation, especially when the two Nicolas Cages appeared on the screen. Once I figured out what was occurring in the film, I quickly jumped on its wavelength and much of it comes from the writing of Charlie Kaufman. With the creation of both Charlie and Donald, he looks at two sides of being a writer. Charlie represents the struggling artist that wants to ensure that he adequately creates something of note and leaves an impact with his work. He seeks to have a purpose thus causing him to get stuck on the minute details and taking forever to finish his projects. Then Donald shows up and has all of the confidence of someone right out of film school that attends seminars to sell his writing. Donald has no care for the content that he writes and it becomes hilarious and upsetting when he seemingly instantly gets something published, even if Charlie deems it to be commercial junk. Their juxtaposition as characters creates for much of the comedy that underlies the entire film. They look exactly the same but go about their business in very different ways to contrasting results.
The story could not have worked without the work of Nicolas Cage and how he portrays the two brothers. Each of them has different qualities that make them charming. Charlie always looks sweaty and distressed throughout the story, as he always needs to contain his nerves. Having Cage act against himself sets up the ultimate Nicolas Cage showcase where only he can handle his own ridiculousness. Cage delivers empathetic performances for each of them as they become endearing for their aspirations. For Charlie, it comes from his desire to make something of note and for Donald, he exudes such a positive attitude about everything that it becomes difficult to root against him. It makes for such fun back and forth as Charlie becomes baffled by the success of Donald.
That success comes from Donald appealing to the market and what sells where Charlie seems to be struggling and it raises the biggest concern of them all being what should be considered art and what is simply a commercial product. Charlie believes in his work, which makes him struggle of adapting this novel written by Orlean (Meryl Streep). He even resorts to meeting with her to discuss the book and how he can garner inspiration for what needs to occur for the story to work on the big screen. On the other hand, Donald gets this idea for this cheap detective story that he manages to get a major deal for because it sells. Charlie had to work years to get an agent and get the opportunity to work on this adaptation while Donald lands in Los Angeles and instantly got something published after not much thought.
Each of their approaches has its values and the difference comes down to their attitudes. Charlie looks down on Donald’s work while Donald nicely tries to assist Charlie with the more challenging material. It raises similar questions in the world of cinema where an independent director can spend years upon years trying to make something with a message and noteworthy just to have another director just helm a big Hollywood project, where they are micromanaged to make millions of dollars. It shows that large battle on the micro and personal level with the twin brothers and their approach to art.
Spike Jonze never fails to make at the very least, a good film. He has done exceptional work in Her and Being John Malkovich where he takes these eccentric ideas and injects humanity to them. With Adaptation, the possibility of it getting too self-indulgent on Kaufman’s side became a real possibility, but he allowed these characters to feel real. Instead of Charlie feeling pretentious in his feelings towards Donald, it comes off as insecure, as he tries to achieve something. Jonze does not make enough movies for my liking with his latest one coming six years since the date of this particular review. However, whenever he decides to make something, he puts in all of his tremendous artistry as he proved with this film.
Initially watching this film may be a bit strange, but it becomes quite an incredible experience once vibing with what Kaufman tries to achieve with the script. It has its excellent bits of humor wrapped into an existential crisis of a man trying to create something. Charlie’s issue happens all of the time for artists and writers attempting to create something with meaning. It gets very wacky towards the end, but it could only conclude that way for the story to have its resonance.