It’s a Story about Flowers…

Alright.  Review time again.  I get to try to make sense of another bizarre and curious film as a part of my now Summer [very +] Film Challenge with Ryan Lagerstrom.  Basically I am going to call this in future the “Charlie Kaufman Challenge” because I already had Being John Malkovich, which you can read my review, and now it is my duty and my privilege to critique Charlie Kaufman’s (and I DO mean Charlie Kaufman’s) Adaptation.

This film was much more tame that Being John Malkovich by FAR.  Not that it was less deep or engaging.  It just lacked that “WTF!?”, shock-and-disturb factor that BJM enjoyed.  It was much more grounded in reality and much less fantastical.  It simply took a different approach at challenging our brains to something extraordinary, and it worked out very well for it.

Summarizing it briefly, the film revolves around Charlie Kaufman (yes him) struggling to transition from the success of Being John Malkovich to writing his next movie, an adaptation (yes that) of a novel: “The Orchid Thief”.  He can’t seem to get across what he wants to so he turns to the only logical option – make it a story about himself trying to adapt the book “The Orchid Thief”!  It is a beautifully crafted dismantling of the 4th wall that entirely foregoes that campy, ridiculous feel of most self-referencing films.

First of all the blending in of his previous work (i.e. – Being John Malkovich) was incredible! The film begins with a sort of “found behind-the-scenes footage” from the making of BJM, with John Malkovich himself in costume for the scene is his own mind and instructing the crew on being efficient for the sakes of the extras.  It gives the film an instant and incomprehensible realness that other films can only dream of.  We feel that this is less a narrative story and more a simple documentary on how Charlie Kaufman’s life went in that period of time.  Kaufman crafts something truly magical here.

And speaking of Mr. Kaufman (or both of them), the acting in the film is rather excellent, though I would expect no less from such a magnificent cast list.  Yes I know I just said that Nicholas Cage is a magnificent actor, and while that may not be exactly the case in his most recent additions to his repertoire, in this film he shines as a beautifully tragic Charlie AND as the excitingly energetic and naive Donald.  He performs both roles wonderfully, bringing to life two very real and marvelously rich characters.  I am certain Kaufman was pleased with Cage’s version of himself; I know I was.  Beyond him, Meryl Streep performs beautifully as usual, taking over the reigns of deeply disturbed bleep from Cameron Diaz.  Her Orlean was tragic and proudly displayed everything Kaufman was trying to say with the film.  And on top of that, Chris Cooper yet again proves that he will always be the down-home, in-the-muck guy that we all love to think is weird.

What is most excellent about this film is it’s subtle (yet obvious) lambasting of the Hollywood system, itself being a sort of Docu-drama on how a movie gets made.  In one of the opening monologues Charlie Kaufman rants about how he doesn’t want to “Hollywood” his screenplay for “The Orchid Thief” – he doesn’t want to add car chases and sex and all that to a simple story.  He just wants to tell it how it is.  Yet as the film goes on, we watch as more and more Hollywood cliches and motifs enter in and blend into the story.  We do get a car chase and gratuitous sex (apparently you have to bare all to win an Oscar these days, right Chris?) and it makes the film so fun and interesting.  The entire time you are aware that you are seeing this merging occurring and yet that is what drives the story along.  Only the real Charlie Kaufman could pull off such a feat.

One final note that I took away from this brilliant movie involves the relative context in which I saw it.  Azusa Pacific University’s Theatre Department had just recently started their production of the play Amadeus and I watched it the day before I saw this movie.  I think the two have interesting parallels, particularly in the realm of character change.

I will be speaking more about  this in an upcoming Ramble but I realized while watching Amadeus that the Theatre is the only place for story’s about people who lose.  If a film were to tell a fully defeatist story (Chinatown) it would be considered trash and a waste of our time because we had invested so much time in a character to watch them fall.  On the other hand the Theatre champions such heartwarming stories as Hamlet, Macbeth, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Amadeus – all involving protagonists who start at least moderately composed and happy and who drive themselves to madness and depression via their competing desires.  Really happy stuff 🙂

So then: what has Athens to do with Jerusalem (in this case Amadeus to do with Adaptation)? For me the connection comes in the scene where Charlie goes to McKee’s lecture on story. Kaufman stands up and asks about what to do in the case that NOTHING happens – “just as it does in life”.  McKee thinks for a second and responds thusly:

Every bleeping day somebody somewhere takes a conscious decision to DESTROY someone else. … If you can’t find that stuff in life then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!  And WHY THE [BLEEP] ARE YOU WASTING MY TWO PRECIOUS HOURS WITH YOUR MOVIE!?  I DON’T HAVE ANY USE FOR IT!

In essence here is what I got:  Life is about change.  Both Salieri and Kaufman struggle with the fact that things in life change – the former not accepting the supposed change in divine favor and the later not really seeing any change at all in himself.  However both point to the fact that things must change – a story isn’t complete until the protagonist changes.  The difference in the films comes when they make their choices as to how to deal with change. Kaufman takes the ironically traditional route ending with him discovering that he can and has changed, while Salieri make the much more interesting (and less self-aware) choice to not change.  We watch as he falls more and more into himself and continually refuses the call, and that is fantastic!  It proves that the narrative structure of the hero NOT succeeding or growing actually works, though not particularly in the realm of film.  Just an interesting parallel I drew.

Overall this is a masterful critique of Hollywood cinema, the narrative story structure, and Charlie Kaufman himself.  It is a wonderfully ironic, self-referencing, bizarre and beautiful film that I would absolutely recommend to any fan of cinema.  It does get a bit slow at times, and it does have a bit of the oddness and some of the vulgarity that are obligatory in any Charlie Kaufman movie, but honestly it is worth sitting through it to receive the ingenious commentaries which Adaptation provides.

Overall Rating:  9//10

Yup!  There you go!  I officially have 6 more movies and the finale season of Battlestar Galactica to watch to finish out the 2011 Summer Film challenge, and I think I am on track to get it all done before the year is out.  I already have Hannah and her Sisters in my possession and I plan to view that soon.

Thanks!  Let me know what you thought of Charlie Kaufman’s movie in the comments below and I will see you next week!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

2 thoughts on “It’s a Story about Flowers…”

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