Adaptation is a Spike Jonze film (Being John Malkovich, Her), written by Charlie Kaufman (Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and starring Nicholas Cage alongside Nicholas Cage – yes, he plays two of the three main characters, with the third being Meryl freaking Streep, of all people! The rest of the cast includes the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and a brilliant turn from Chris Cooper as the hillbilly-"genius"-orchid-thief, Laroche. Sounding weird? Sure, but then you find out that one of the characters that Cage is playing is Kaufman, that the film is semi-autobiographical, and based on a book about, well, orchids. Sort of.
More specifically, Adaptation tells the story of a screenwriter (Kaufman/Cage) trying to adapt a book by an NYT journalist (Streep) about an orchid smuggler (Laroche/Cooper), but then falling into a spiral of writer's block, and ultimately dragging his (fictional/Cage) twin brother out to New York to meet the journalist, inadvertently discovering that she is in having an affair with Laroche, and addicted to a potent drug made from the orchids. It all culminates in a gun chase through the Florida swamps, where Kaufman's (fictional) twin gets killed. Oh, and that fictional twin is also the co-writer of the movie, which has been memorialised in his (non-existent) name. Oh, and the entire movie is told via the narration of Kaufman trying to, well, write the movie. Including scenes where he "writes" scenes we've already seen (like the trippy opening sequence where we flash through the entire life history of the planet until we see his birth), narrates his own character's actions, and revises the plot we're watching whilst in unfolds. To call the film meta would be an understatement.
Which is the problem. It's simultaneously too tricky to navigate and too telegraphed in its own smugness. Don't get me wrong, the acting here is superb and if you're into off-kilter, meta-storytelling you'll probably enjoy it. The critics certainly lapped it up! The problem is that by the end of the movie you're left uncertain if there was any point to it all except for Kaufman to fulfil his contract. If anything, the film feels like a therapy session for Kaufman trying to come to grips with sudden and unexpected Hollywood acceptance and success. Maybe if you're in the industry it therefore speaks volumes, but if you're outside of it it just feels a bit navel-gazey and meandering.
I also take personal offence at Adaptation being billed as a comedy. Dark humour, maybe; surreal and abstract, sure. But a comedy? There's no clever angle on the human condition to find here, no careful meta-analysis of a specific genre or film trope, no last-minute moment of absurd comic timing (think Burn After Reading). Characters aren't exactly unlikeable, but nor do you find their exploits humorous, more just mundane. The result is a movie which captivates, certainly shocks, and may even make you think a little, but never once raises a smile, so how it's become categorised as a "comedy" is beyond me 🤦♂️.
That said, it's superbly direct, brilliantly acted, and certainly enthralling. It's a shame that it's so obvious that we're watching the script evolve in "real-time" and knowing it so clearly; I can't help but feel that other films (even other films involving these very creatives) have pulled that dance off better. I'm also not sure how I feel about the "twist" that the central character actually grows. The fictional Kaufman spends the entire film arguing that there is a beauty in portraying the mundane, that stories don't need to actually have meaning or intrigue, or interest. And then the story ends with Laroche suddenly killed by an alligator, his brother flung through the windscreen, the local cop killed, the journalist in prison, and Kaufman "getting the girl". It's all the things he's been arguing against and yes I get it there's the scene where he talks to the scriptwriting motivational speaker who tells him he was wrong and he has the epiphany and from that point the film is interesting and characters get growth and yadda yadda yadda. It doesn't work (for me) because it's so damned obvious what they're trying to do. It just feels amateur or arrogant, one of which I can forgive but unfortunately feels less likely.
But who knows. I certainly don't feel like I wasted my time watching Adaptation and, on paper, there's a gem here. Streep is brilliant, Cage is fascinating, and Cooper knocks it out of the park. Maybe I just need to watch it again when I'm feeling particularly zoned into my own headspace, knowing what to expect, and not waiting for the laughs to kick in. Maybe then I'll get it. Right now, I'm just not sure there's that much depth to get, despite the two-hour-long attempt 🤷♂️