Watching Ebert: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)

This is the next in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

With Nicolas Cage starring in the upcoming Knowing, I hear from most people I speak to about it that Nicolas Cage is one of the worst actors they’ve ever seen. I urge all of them, as I urge you, to watch Adaptation, the fantastic second film from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. It boasts TWO great performances from Nicolas Cage, showing him to be an actor of great wit and range within one film. It also boasts possibly the cleverest script of the past decade, capable of tricking an audience without being unfair. Like great magicians, Jonze and Kaufman keep you guessing what will happens, and when your expectations are turned on their head, you’re not frustrated—you’re delighted.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is the praised screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, but he has some enormous self-esteem issues. He has trouble with women. He thinks his brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage) is a pathetic idiot. He agreed to adapt the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, wanting to make it a film without the trappings of conventional Hollywood cinema, to just make it a film about flowers… but he’s learning why there haven’t been any films like that so far: it’s impossible. Meanwhile, we too meet Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and the subject of her book, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a man who is missing his front teeth and steals orchids because it’s his most recent in a series of obsessions. Still, his eccentricity draws in Orlean, as her story draws in Kaufman, as we are drawn into the film.

It’s a series of endless parallels, people looking for the answer to their questions about love and obsession, about trying to simply accept beauty and passion without complication, when life doesn’t want to allow that. Sound confusing? Perhaps in spots, but its ambition and entertainment value keep you from caring. The acting all over the film is fantastic, from the little cameos (John Malkovich and Catherine Keener as themselves) to the smaller roles (Ron Livingston is hilarious as Kaufman’s agent, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donald’s girlfriend hits the right note of sweetness). Meryl Streep proves yet again that she’s one of the funniest actresses in cinema when given the opportunity, and Chris Cooper, the marvelous character actor, gives this Oscar-winning role so much layering past the initial quirkiness, and his chemistry with Streep is electric. Finally, the double performance of Cage as two identical characters with two completely identifiable personalities is stellar. Even without the seamless special effects that make you believe there are two Cages on screen, the acting is distinctive and nuanced enough that even if we could see the seams, we would still be captivated by the character work.

And then there’s the change in the film with 20 minutes left. It’s not all of a sudden– it’s gradual, but it will arrive before you realize what has changed. Some will be frustrated and confused by this turn. Some will understand why this transpired, but will reject the notion that this was the right way to end the film. Some will think it was the “easy way out.” I personally think the last 20 minutes is not a cop-out, but rather a brilliant invention from the most creative mind in screenwriting. I watched it for the fourth time yesterday, and I never fail to have my mind reeling at the end.

It comes as no surprise to anyone who reads my blog that a Charlie Kaufman film is one of the best films of the last ten years in my opinion. However, since no one defends Nicolas Cage as an actor, I think this is one of many examples that he is a fine, fine actor who chooses to do genre flicks for paychecks. This film is his finest hour, an Oscar-nominated double performance full of charm and heart. The whole film takes you down unexpected roads—it’s an edge-of-your-seat film without the typical sort of thrills. Regardless of the quality of the action-thrillers Cage puts out in the coming years, I will keep returning to this film and pushing it onto anyone I know. It’s the best type of filmmaking there is—endlessly creative and ready to bend cinematic convention without losing its entertainment value.


Ebert says, “What a bewilderingly brilliant and entertaining movie this is…”Adaptation” is a movie that leaves you breathless with curiosity, as it teases itself with the directions it might take. To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation.”

Read the rest here.

~ by russellhainline on March 20, 2009.

One Response to “Watching Ebert: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)”

  1. nicolas cage is a great actor…this movie is on my top 10 list.
    he outdid himself in this film.

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