Wayback Wednesday: Adaptation (2002)

Even Meryl couldn’t save this one for me.

I’m all for trying new things and exploring new territory, but let’s be honest: sometimes it blows up in your face. Big time. Take this week’s Wayback for example. In an attempt to do something a little different and watch a movie that’s a touch out of my comfort zone, I watched Adaptation (2002) for the first time. Whoa boy, was this movie bonkers. I voluntarily chose to watch this movie, but even before it started, I had a sneaky suspicion that it was going to be joyless, disjointed, and needlessly convoluted. Unfortunately, I was right. I’m just a tad disappointed because after seeing the trailer and hearing great word of mouth, I had high hopes for this movie. Adaptation is well-written, well-made, and well-acted, but for me, the whole thing is somewhat dull and lifeless.

Credit: imdb.com / Sony Pictures Releasing

Based on the book, “The Orchid Thief,” as well as Charlie Kaufman’s own experiences trying to adapt the book into a screenplay, Adaptation follows Charlie as he struggles with the screenplay, and his own romantic and personal issues. As he becomes more and more frustrated and weighed down with writer’s block, Charlie becomes more desperate and becomes more unhinged.

In theory, Adaptation has all the elements that a movie needs to appeal to me: It stars Meryl Streep, it’s about screenwriting in L.A., it features a protagonist who has to pull themselves together after experiencing hardship…I’m here for all of that! To its credit, Adaptation starts off on a strong note. As the movie began with nothing but a black screen and a voiceover of what goes on in Charlie’s head as he tries to works through his writer’s block, I was instantly intrigued. As a writer, his rambling, sporadic thought process that perfectly captures how the mind wanders when trying to write is SUPER relatable. Comical, insightful, and honest, I was so into this movie when it was actually an in-depth and funny take on the work that goes into creating a screenplay. If the movie had stuck to that, a simple premise explored in a fresh, unique way, I would have been 10, 000 per cent on board. But Adaptation isn’t as simple as that. Instead, it’s a clusterfuck of nonsense that days later, I’m still unable to fully describe. I feel like I need a long walk and a stiff drink after watching the chaos that is this movie. 

My biggest gripe about Adaptation is that it just isn’t about anything. Yes, you could say Charlie writing his screenplay is the main plot, but the movie rarely treats it as such. It gets pushed to the background and ignored so frequently, that I had to keep reminding myself that at some point, screenwriting was bound to be made relevant again. Let me tell you though, it was rough. This movie contains so many batshit, unpredictable, seemingly irrelevant scenes, that it was honestly a chore to get through. Seriously, there were more scenes of Nicolas Cage masturbating than there were of him doing any kind of writing.

Adaptation has been praised for being humorous, genius, and brilliantly thought-provoking, and I don’t quite understand why. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe if I were to give it a second watch things would click more easily for me, but as a first-time viewer, I was throughly bored and annoyed throughout the entire thing. Except for when it touched on Charlie’s struggles with writing, there was nothing of interest that drew me in. It also doesn’t help that when it comes to both plot and tone, Adaptation is all over the place. You watch the trailer and it promises a jaunty, indie, heavily comedic, fun, screenwriting movie. And then you end up getting a birthing video, flower porn, and death by alligator. There are so many ridiculous twists and turns, I think I gave myself whiplash just trying to keep up. Words can’t describe how much clearer and more concise I wish this movie was. I wish it focused so much more on the trials and tribulations of screenwriting. Truly, that’s when the movie and Cage shine the brightest. 

As Charlie, Cage delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from the actor. He masterfully conveys the mania of an artist driven to the edge of sanity by his own work, and you can feel his frustrations as if they were your own. Cage transforms into Kaufman with ease, playing the neurotic, frantic writer with surprising restraint. Cage also plays Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, which he pulls off fantastically. The way he’s able to play both the tortured Charlie and the carefree Donald is amazing to watch. Playing both roles gives Cage the chance to showcase his range and in my opinion, it’s the best thing that Adaptation accomplishes. Special shoutout to Chris Cooper who is utterly unrecognizable in the role of orchid thief John Laroche. It’s a transformative performance that is totally worthy of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he earned.

Look, I know I’m going to Hell for saying this, but each time the movie cut back to Meryl…I checked out. As author Susan Orlean, she spends the majority of her scenes talking about the legality of orchid hunting and I was so flummoxed as to why the movie chose to include these dull scenes. To feature the entire backstory of Susan’’s research into orchids in a movie meant to primarily be about screenwriting is just bizarre. Couldn’t these flashbacks about Susan researhcing the story have been a movie on its own? I get it, it ties into Charlie’s work adapting the book, but it pulled me out of the Charlie storyline each time they frequently cut back to her. Nonetheless, Streep is expectedly amazing in the role. I mean, DUH. Oh, and speaking of amazing, this movie is on my shit list for the tragic waste of great actresses like Tilda Swinton, Judy Greer, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

I think it’s safe to say that Adaptation is my first and last Spike Jonze movie. I may one day revisit it in an attempt to finally understand just what the Hell this movie is about, but for the foreseeable future I don’t want to see or think about this movie ever again. I feel like there are better movies about screenwriting, better movies about the intensity of one’s work, and definitely better movies starring Meryl Streep. Hello, Julie & Julia (2009). By the way, check out my review for that movie, here. Now, if someone were to make a movie about the adaptation of THAT movie, I would love to see it.

Have you seen Adaptation? Are you a fan?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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