"Adaptation" is the second effort from the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the first being 1999's highly-regarded "Being John Malkovich". While "Malkovich" was an offbeat treasure, "Adaptation" is that and more - it's abstract and complex without being surreal, it's hilarious and emotional in all the right places and it seems to almost constantly be working on more than one level at any one moment.
The film stars Nicholas Cage in a dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, brothers who are screenwriters. Charlie is, of course, based upon the real screenwriter. Donald, who still gets "screenwriting credit" on this film (I wonder how the WGA accepted that), is a fictional creation. As the film begins, Donald has moved in with Charlie until he can find his own place. Charlie has just been hired to adapt Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief". The book is a real book, based upon a real article, while the fact that Kaufman was hired to adapt it is reportedly true, as well.
While Kaufman gleefully accepts the work, he's not prepared for the task of trying to find the story within. While the book, about a man who figured out a way to take Orchids from protected government land in Florida, has a lot about the flowers, it doesn't have any sort of drama or conflict. He sits at the computer, doing what every writer does at some point - wondering whether food or some other task can take priority over or assist in some unseen way the project in front of them.
To make matters worse, Charlie watches Donald pour himself into a remarkably derivitive thriller script that gains him both enough wealth to move out and a wealth of possible offers. Charlie only finds a producer (a nice, subtle Tilda Swinton) and agent (an amusing Ron Livingston) wondering where the first draft is. Finally, he begins to write himself into the screenplay, trailing the author (Orlean is played by Streep in the picture) to New York City and eventually, headed - with Donald tagging along - to Florida, where Orlean seeks to meet with the Orchid poacher (Chris Cooper in an excellent performance) once again.
That's certainly saying little of all the turns that "Adaptation" takes, most of which are unexpected and occasionally quite fascinating. Again, there are a few levels on which the story works at any one time. Kaufman, brilliantly portrayed by Cage, suffers from tremendous self-doubt. There's the writers block aspect and how both the creative process and the current climate in Hollywood is explored via both the struggle of Charlie and success of Donald. There's a couple of love stories at work. There's the search for the kind of passion and desire by Orlean's character that she sees in the Orchid thief's search for a prize flower, which becomes of the most important aspects in Charlie's search for a focus to the script. There's the way that some of the conventional aspects that Charlie wished to avoid begin to turn up in the last act and how they do.
There's so much going on within "Adaptation" that it's a miracle that Kaufman and Jonze (along with the editor) were somehow able to bring a clear and understandable structure to it. Technically, the film is excellent, with the best dual-performance visuals that I've ever seen. Cage is often acting against Cage and the effect is remarkably seamless. The performances are uniformly excellent, as Cage's double performance is his finest effort since "Leaving Las Vegas". Streep and Cooper provide marvelous support, while Brian Cox has a fantastic quick role as screenwriting guru Robert McKee.
"Adaptation"'s third act initially seemed a little shaky, but I've gained appreciation for the film's last third as well as the whole over the few days since I've seen it. I also plan on seeing the film again, as I think the film takes a couple of viewings to appreciate all of the subtle touches. It doesn't take another viewing, however, for me to say that the film is easily one of 2002's finest; it's fun, complex, dazzling, beautiful and occasionally touching entertainment of the highest order.