Adaptation (2002)

*. Oh boy. I guess you either get it or you don’t. I sure don’t. Or, to be more specific, I get it and I’m not impressed.
*. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze seem like a match made in film school. Being John Malkovich struck me as pointless. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I couldn’t finish watching. Her I thought overblown. Then there’s this.
*. It’s a story about a screenwriter who is having trouble adapting a book into a movie, which is exactly the position Kaufman was in. This sort of thing usually goes by the name of self-reflexivity or self-referentiality, or as “meta”-something or other. It’s nothing new, complicated, or very interesting. You might complain that it’s narcissistic and solipsistic, but since it levels those accusations at itself it’s one step ahead of you. You may hate the screenplay, but so does Kaufman! In fact he hates himself! This is a nearly foolproof way of disarming hostile criticism.
*. This game of whether or not the film is being serious, about anything, or is just putting us on, is one that you either find entertaining or annoying. I’m of the latter opinion. Roger Ebert, who loved the film, starts off his review by referring to it as bewildering, curious, and challenging but I really don’t see what’s so complicated about what’s going on. At the same time, the fact that it’s all being presented in such a way undercuts my response to the characters. How can I take them seriously?
*. It’s billed as a comedy, but was any of this supposed to be funny? In what way? Not only did I not laugh, I didn’t smile once the whole way through. The only obvious comic parts involved the mockery of Donald’s obtuseness, and they were . . . obvious. I mean, in 2002 a screenwriter sending up hack screenwriters in Hollywood by way of a caricature “bro” making it big with a serial-killer script? What’s the point?
*. And Donald isn’t even the biggest caricature! Just look at his brother. Is there any more tired cliché than the self-doubting, self-hating, nerdy neurotic comic writer in Hollywood, presented in a self-reflexive narrative? Alvy Siger in Annie Hall. The Larry Sanders Show. Jerry Seinfeld. Come on. How is Kaufman making any of this new? Annie Hall was way more inventive (and funnier).

*. As you can tell, I wasn’t thrilled by Adaptation. I couldn’t see what was smart or demanding or original about it. I found the knowingness and irony off-putting in a passive-aggressive kind of way. But the politics were the most troubling thing of all.
*. John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) is the only character I cared about. He’s presented in a sympathetic light, as Floridian flotsam blown this way and that by fate and finding some meaning or purpose in life by chasing after a rare flower that he does seem to have some genuine feeling for beyond the commercial. This all seems good, as the film is aware that Charlie and Susan (and Charles and Spike) are just using John as material, or projecting their own inadequacies upon him, and aren’t that interested in him otherwise.
*. Because John is a redneck, and the movie’s focus is on Hollywood Charlie and NYC Susan. At the end the film can’t think of anything to do with him but feed him to the gators (the real John Laroche is, as of the time of this writing, still alive). Susan, we can be sure, is going to be OK, and the really important thing is whether Charlie is going to get back together with his girlfriend. This goes beyond being patronizing.
*. Put another way, while I haven’t read The Orchid Thief, I did read the New Yorker article it grew out of. I thought it was interesting. I thought it might have made an interesting movie. Kaufman found it a difficult story to adapt, but it’s hard to miss the fact that he didn’t find it interesting. Or at least that he thought the story of his own personal and professional problems was, or should be, of more moment.
*. I think this is what’s behind all the complaints about the film’s narcissism, which I think are deserved. The problem is that while Charlie is more interested in Charlie than he is in anything else, I’m not.

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