November 27, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it an A-

Adaptation is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who is hired to turn a book called ”The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. There really is a Charlie Kaufman — he wrote ”Being John Malkovich,” and he wrote ”Adaptation.” There’s also really a book called ”The Orchid Thief,” a 1998 nonfiction best-seller by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean about John Laroche, an actual, fanatical orchid breeder in swampy southwestern Florida whose serial passions (for turtles, tropical fish, and fossils before orchids) aroused the author’s own passion to have a passion.

Anyhow, in ”Adaptation,” the character Charlie — played by Nicolas Cage in his lightest, loosest, best performance since ”Moonstruck” — is stuck. He doesn’t know how to adapt ”The Orchid Thief” into a movie. This Charlie, the fictional Charlie based on the real Kaufman, knew how to write a snappy mind-bender of a story with ”Being John Malkovich,” but he doesn’t know how to adapt. Charlie is sweaty, balding, blubbery, insecure, frightened by women, blocked, and panicked about being blocked. In this way he’s the very opposite of his twin brother, Donald — also played by Cage. (Who knew Cage had access to such twinkle, bricked up behind his facade of lugubrious action hero?) Donald wants to be a screenwriter too. Donald takes Robert McKee’s famous Hollywood screenwriting course, learns about beats and conflicts and yada yada, and writes a crappy screenplay about a serial killer with a multiple-personality disorder.

The script sells; Donald is unencumbered by talent, but he’s hot. Donald is frumpy and balding, but he knows how to sell a script, and pick up chicks. He adapts.

The notion of meta has never been diddled more mega than in this giddy Möbius strip of a movie, a contrivance so whizzy and clever that even when it tangles at the end, murked like swampy southwestern Florida itself, the stumble has quotation marks around it. ”Being John Malkovich,” it turns out, was no parlor trick: ”Adaptation” demonstrates that Kaufman, the real Charlie Kaufman, has a rare and really weird talent not only for finding portals into other people’s psyches but also for Silly Puttying his own into the stories he tells. This guy is fun.

And he could easily have been so very annoying. Which brings in Spike Jonze. I mention Kaufman first, because in ”Malkovich” and even more so in ”Adaptation,” the script itself is the story, the thing on which all else is so nervily balanced. But ”Adaptation” marks Kaufman’s second collaboration with Jonze as director, and it’s clearer than ever that Jonze can do with picture and performance precisely what Kaufman can do with words. Jonze can make actors and action dance in such a way that even the loopiest notion seems sane, and maybe even deep. (Are we not all screenwriters of our own life scripts? Are we not all forever teetering between extremes of Charlie-ish blocked brilliance and Donald-ish functional hackery?) Cage worrying and nattering as the twin Kaufmans, Charlie and Donald, Meryl Streep letting out her bottled-up wooo-hooo! as Orlean, the fabulous Chris Cooper as Laroche, all wiry and unaccountably attractive with greasy hair and no front teeth — they all get jiggy to Jonze’s beat, the tempo for which is set by Kaufman’s rollicking textual score.

In the end, ”Adaptation” rollicks too much. The movie opens to a nutty scene, ostensibly on the set of ”Being John Malkovich,” where Malkovich himself — the perfect monster for a Kaufman & Jonze production — pitches a fit while Cage, as Kaufman, skulks on the sidelines. As Donald makes his appearance (and Cage seesaws his performances), the excitement swells: This movie brushes with greatness, and it’s on to something ”Topsy-Turvy”-ish about creativity, neurosis, ego, and dumb Hollywood luck. Then Brian Cox makes his appearance as a foulmouthed interpretation of Robert McKee himself (Real? Fake? Who cares — perfect!), and the industry gods giggle.

Then… well, then either Kaufman & Jonze lose control of their infernal machine, or else they enter into such heavy meta territory that I’m left behind. Because not only does Charlie insert himself into his own adaptation of ”The Orchid Thief,” but his own screenplay also undergoes a kind of genetic splicing with that of Donald’s, i.e., not only do the perils of Charlie-on-the-screen get hacked and McKee’d up, but ”Adaptation” does too.

Which is either a neat feat of movie-industry commentary, or a structural collapse from the weight of too much cerebral whimsy. The last stretch of ”Adaptation” may be messy by design (is it a struggle to the death between the forces of eccentric Charlian genius and dumb Donaldian commercialism?). Or it may be raggedy out of confusion. Hell, my own confusion may be just what Kaufman as Charlie as Donald had in mind for the audience. (See! See just how hard adaptation is in life, and in the movies!) All I know is what I don’t know: How does Charlie Kaufman do it?

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