Adaptation is one of the most unusual, intriguing movies you’re ever likely to see. It’s also one of the rare movies where the screenwriter (Charles Kaufman) is the creative person most closely associated with the film, even more so than the director (Spike Jonze). Adaptation is routinely described as a “Charles Kaufman movie” after the offbeat screenwriter, most famous before this for Being John Malkovich.
Adaptation is so creative, and operates on so many different levels, that even though there are aspects to it that I would have preferred had been handled differently, I’m still very impressed by the work as a whole.
I’m also appreciative of the fact that it’s not nearly as confusing as it could be. One of the things I’m most often annoyed by in movies is artificial ambiguity that seems to have no purpose beyond embodying the belief that somehow being inscrutable in and of itself makes a movie better, more intellectual, more for grown ups. It doesn’t, any more than superfluous incomprehensibility is good in academia or any other area of life. But this “confusion for confusion’s sake” seems to be a common modus operandi for non-mainstream movies.
I doubt I’ll be able to describe this movie in a way that doesn’t make it sound totally screwy and baffling, but in fact the skillful filmmaking and editing decisions makes it a lot more understandable to watch than one would think.
So as opposed to, say, some cop dramas, or films about druggies, or whatever, where a simple story that could easily be told in a totally straightforward manner instead has unexplained characters appearing from nowhere, scenes that you don’t know if they’re in or out of chronological order, scenes that might be dreams or fantasy sequences, and all the key events happening in the dark or off camera, etc., here’s a film that is easily more complex than 99% of those, yet every effort is made to allow the viewer to follow what’s going on.
Here’s an example: This film jumps around a great deal chronologically. Certainly that has the potential to be confusing. But at the beginning of every scene with a time shift like that, a graphic identifies when it’s taking place. That’s really helpful, and it tells me that Kaufman, or whoever you want to attribute it to, wants the movie to be no more difficult to follow than it has to be for something of such a bizarre structure.
As weird as this movie is, I was never shaking my head trying to figure out who a given character was, or what the heck just happened.
Anyway, the film is about Kaufman himself, played wonderfully as a sort of Harvey Pekar-ish character by Nicolas Cage in a dual role. Kaufman is torturing himself trying to come up with a screenplay for a movie version of a nonfiction book (which I looked up later and found out is a real book by the way) by a New Yorker writer (Meryl Streep) about an obsessive man who tracks down endangered flowers. Though he’s also torturing himself about his problems with the woman he’s sort of dating, and his failure with women in general, and pretty much everything else in his life.
He “shares” his home with his double, who has the personality of a worshipful kid brother who always wants Kaufman’s advice and guidance, and always flatters him with the greatest sincerity. Kaufman mostly finds this double irritating, snapping at him here and there, and tolerating him with an effort. There’s no serious animosity though.
I think the double is a terrific person. I understand why some people would find him annoying, but I would have no problem having someone with his personality in my life, and easily 80% of his attributes I wish I had more of myself.
He’s a sweet, caring, honest, positive person, who always sees the best in people. An eternal optimist, with no worries, no inhibitions. He’s easily dismissible as na¯ve, even stupid, and as way too clingy with his “big brother,” but at a deeper level I’m not convinced he’s any of those things. And at the end of the movie'”just to skip ahead'”when he states his philosophy, or his general approach to life, it’s really a beautiful message that spoke to me.
Interestingly, I didn’t really think of the double as an ambiguous character for much of the movie. For the first half, maybe the first two-thirds of the way, it never dawned on me that there was supposed to be some doubt as to whether he might be a real person. I thought he was clearly a part of Kaufman himself, some other side of himself that he was projecting in his imagination into the external world as if he were interacting with him as another being.
I saw him as what Kaufman maybe wishes he could be at some level, or a part of himself that he has suppressed for whatever reason and now is ambivalent about.
Kaufman doubts everything, most of all himself, and is a perpetual bundle of anxieties. The double has sky high self-esteem without being the slightest bit arrogant, because he loves and accepts and thinks the most of himself in the same way he does so indiscriminately about everybody.
So that’s Kaufman presumably realizing he’s lost that childlike way of looking at the world and people, and finding it annoying that he keeps thinking about it and wondering what life would be like if he hadn’t lost it.
His doubt is that you can’t be a sane, responsible, rational adult and be like the double. Surely you can’t go through life feeling great about your writing when there’s evidence you’re a hack and your ideas are often trite or just plain goofy. Surely you can’t open yourself up to everyone and embrace life when the world is full of people who will insult and harm you if you give them any opening, and women who will reject you or break your heart.
So for much of the film, I saw the double totally as an imaginary being who plays an important role in Kaufman’s psyche. And I’m not saying he necessarily turns out to be anything other than precisely that, yet it becomes a lot less clear later. Or maybe it’s totally ambiguous from the beginning and I just didn’t pick up on it until later.
But in the latter stages of the movie, the double is referred to casually by Kaufman and others as his twin brother, and it turns out other people can see him and interact with him, and even that other people can see and interact with Kaufman and his double simultaneously.
Pretty much everything you would expect of a real person. There’s still the possibility that he’s someone Kaufman is imagining, but it becomes more and more convoluted trying to figure out logistically what could really be happening in the scenes that include other people especially, if both Kaufman and the double are really Kaufman.
When the double brings a girl home for a sleepover to Kaufman’s annoyance, and she converses with both of them, what’s really happening there? Did Kaufman act out of character and actually get up the nerve to pursue this girl to get laid? Has she never been in his home and he’s just imagining, wishing, wondering, what it would be like to be the kind of uninhibited, sweet, free spirited simpleton who could appeal to someone like her?
So anyway, while that’s going on with the double, the book by the New Yorker writer turns out to be a highly self-referential one where the author wrote herself into it, both in the sense of recounting her interviews and interaction with the subject of the book, but also telling about her internal struggle to understand life and try to find herself and her passion.
Kaufman is trying to figure out how to write a movie about an author writing largely about herself. He toys with various ways of making the movie be about him trying to figure out how to write a movie about this author writing largely about herself, including just making it about his inner struggle about whether to make it a movie about him trying to figure out how to write a movie about this author writing largely about herself.
Of course, the double is working on his own screenplay, since he’s dying to follow in the footsteps of his beloved “brother.” He’s grateful for any help he can get from Kaufman, as he excitedly tells him it’s going to be about a serial killer holding a girl hostage while a cop tracks him down, with the “twist” being that all three are really the same person with multiple personality disorder.
Kaufman tries, without success, to impress upon him how that makes no sense whatsoever, that there’s no way for one person to be tied up while simultaneously chasing himself on horseback on a motorcycle. (And it’s great, because we have to remind ourselves that we’re watching a movie with just that kind of logistical absurdity whenever he and his double interact with each other, like now in this conversation, and especially when they interact with others.)
The story circles back on itself in numerous ways like that that I’ve only begun to convey.
For the most part, it’s handled well. There’s definitely humor to it, but it’s also interesting to try to figure out, and it’s thought-provoking in some of the ideas it raises with the contrast between Kaufman and his double, and with the troubled New Yorker writer and her inability to get beyond thinking and writing about life to where she can experience life, and do it with passion. A good solid film that kept me reasonably engaged the whole way.
But then I found it a little unsatisfying toward the end, as it suddenly becomes more unrealistic and kind of jumps the tracks into another genre of movie.
Now one can wonder how a movie like this could be criticized for being unrealistic, since it’s so utterly weird from start to finish. But this is a different kind of unrealistic.
I was wondering all along how autobiographical this was, whether Kaufman really had at one point tried to make a screenplay out of this book (like I mentioned, a real book), whether it was a colossal struggle like this, and whether it roughly played out like what we’re seeing. Then it goes off in this other direction late with a lot of stuff I’m very confident never happened in real life, and it just doesn’t fit the first 85% of the movie.
Think of it in terms of a movie like Annie Hall. Annie Hall has fantasy elements, like Marshall McLuhan showing up in a movie line, the characters being able to watch people from decades ago, etc., etc. But it’s embedded in a story that’s a very realistic depiction of a relationship. The weird stuff is there for some laughs, or to give some insight into the characters, but the real story itself underlying it isn’t weird at all. You can imagine it being semi-autobiographical, based on an actual relationship or a composite of multiple actual relationships of the filmmaker.
OK, now imagine the first 85% of Annie Hall is unchanged, but the last 15% is about Alvy and Annie deciding to rob a bank, or turning out to both be CIA agents, or something screwy like that. And all of a sudden it’s not a relationship movie, but some kind of action movie. Even if we’re to understand that last 15% as some kind of fantasy, it’s not like the earlier fantasy material, and it just doesn’t fit the earlier feel of the movie.
That’s what the last portion of this film feels like. I didn’t need all this fanciful stuff coming in from left field at the end.
On the other hand, in a way I can’t really condemn it. I love the way this movie takes so many chances and is so willing to be unconventional. This particular bizarre choice of a plot twist mostly didn’t work for me, but I was accepting of it anyway, because by that point I was appreciating the weirdness of the movie in general.
There are other, lesser, things that were a little flat in the movie. Like the girlfriend character is never really fleshed out, and isn’t particularly interesting.
But the point is the movie as a whole won me over. I don’t have to have liked every bit of it when you divide it up. It’s fascinating and admirable when it works, and it’s even fascinating and admirable to a degree when it doesn’t, just because it’s so “outside the box” (in a good way, rather than in the “confusion for confusion’s sake” way I described earlier).
A clear winner.