No Good-Time Charlie

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It's hard to write when you're down in the dumps. Just ask Charlie Kaufman. Having written the deliriously original Being John Malkovich, he's hired to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction best seller The Orchid Thief. It's a meditative, philosophical, nonlinear narrative, totally resistant to conventional screenwriting technique. Charlie, played with morose and hilarious authority by Nicolas Cage, immediately develops an XXL-size writer's block.

It is not dissolved by stalking Orlean (Meryl Streep) to discover her writerly secrets. Or by enrolling in one of the infamous screenwriting seminars given by Robert McKee (Brian Cox). It is certainly not eased by Kaufman's best invention, a completely fictional twin brother named Donald (also played by Cage), who is everything Charlie is not — chipper, feckless, self-confident. For want of something better to do between dates, Donald starts churning out a totally fatuous action screenplay, which, naturally, he sells for a huge sum of money.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Is he the brother from hell? No, can't be — since he doesn't exist. See him rather as a projection of everything the tormented Charlie would like to be: a Hollywood smoothie, entirely uncursed by doubt, depression or dismay at the ratchety workings of the world. And see Adaptation as, at its best, a schizoid, almost bipolar comedy in which a basically glum guy struggles to assert his withered gleeful side.

Poor Charlie. What's he to do but write a script about how he can't write a script — especially a script that anyone would readily green-light? That Adaptation, the finished film we are actually watching, is based on this desperate effort is his ultimate joke. Or the ultimate in self-referential moviemaking.

Whether audiences will be amused or annoyed by the final product is an open question. Director Spike Jonze is a Seinfeldian surrealist, and it's fun, especially if you happen to be a writer, to see Charlie trying to concentrate on his script while visions of coffee and a banana-nut muffin dance distractingly in his head.

On the other hand, you can't say that, for all their juking and jiving, Kaufman and Jonze have really licked Orlean's book. Chris Cooper is funny as the dentally challenged redneck orchid thief — there's a funny-weird disconnect between his personality and his obsession — and Streep works up a fine, ladylike glow of perspiration stalking him. But the movie ends in a burst of violence that we are unprepared for and don't believe. Maybe it's the film's final joke: Donald's cheesy screenwriting manner winning out over Charlie's. In fact, the mythical brother shares a writing credit on the film. But still, it feels like a desperation move — the big bang that for no good reason blows away this eccentric and often delightful little universe. It's a miscalculation — though a calculated one — but it does not erase one's fond memories of all the odd, deeply humorous behavior that preceded it.