There’s an old piece floating around the Internet that purports to describe the Lifecycle of Mailing Lists. A list begins when a bunch of people get together to discuss a topic: beekeeping, say, or perl programming. And that works fine for a while. But some people soon get bored or cranky or both, and they begin commenting not on the subject, but on the quality of other posts. “Read the FAQ before you post!” they might write in response to a newbie, or “No one on this list appreciates your use of vulgarity.” And sooner or later, some other folks start talking about the people talking about the posts: “I don’t see why you get so freaked out at a few swear words. We’re all adults here!” And then some folks start commenting on the people commenting on the people commenting on, on … uh, hmm, I got lost, there. At any rate, after the list has reached its nth-level of meta, the whole things starts to come unraveled.
So too with Adaptation, a film both by and about Charlie Kaufman. The ostensible topic of the movie is John Laroche, a roustabout from Southern Florida who routinely swiped endangered orchids from state preserves. Laroche was profiled in a New Yorker article entitled The Orchid Thief, and the author, Susan Orlean, was soon asked to expand the piece into a full-length novel. In doing so, Orlean — perhaps sensing that the orchid thief alone couldn’t fill a 284-page book — inserted herself into the narrative, serving as a foil to Laroche’s roguish ways. This is the work that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is asked to adapt for Hollywood. He, like Orlean, can’t seem to find enough material to fill an entire screenplay, so he too inserts himself into the story, making Adaptation a movie about a guy writing a movie about a book about a woman writing a book about a guy who steals plants. And to make things even more ethereal, Kaufman (or, rather, Nicholas Cage, in the role of Kaufman) spends much of the film fretting about the fact that he’s so bereft of ideas that he’s resorted to writing about himself, adding even more layers of meta to the mix.
Like mailing lists, all this abstraction eventually causes the whole thing to come unglued. Unlike mailing lists, however, Adaptation is finite in length (114 minutes, to be exact), at the end of which Kaufman tries to extract the audience from the whole mess before they get fed up. Sadly, he’s not entirely successful at this — I was ready for the closing credits a good 20 minutes before it finally arrived.
Adaptation has been getting crazy-good reviews (it’s at 90% on Metacritic), but at least one critic has declared this to be an emperor without clothing. “Adaptation is the most overrated movie of the year by people who should know better,” says Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer. He’s kinda right. But, on the other hand, there’s no denying that it has cleverness up the ying-yang. For example, one of the central conceits is that John Laroche only provides One-New-Yorker-length article’s worth of material to work with. And as it describes Kaufman’s difficulties, Adaptation actually devotes half an hour to telling the full Orchid Thief story. That half an hour is time well spent, but if the whole movie had been about this subject it would have involved about 80 minutes of padding and filler (which Kaufman realizes right from the get-go). So you get to see your Orchid Thief movie and, as a bonus, you get another hour of mostly interesting meta-story.
Where this meta-story really works is when it’s taking quick jabs at itself, such as when Kaufman, in voiceover, ruminates about how hackneyed voiceovers have become. There’s a lot of that going on: whenever a tenet of screenwriting is mentioned in the movie, you can be sure that it’s going to be followed or flouted soon thereafter. Sadly, one of the tenets Adaptation opts to ignore is: don’t belabor the joke. The last 20 minutes of the film are essentially one long “voiceover dissing voiceovers” gag, which continues well past the point where you want to shout “Right! I got it!”
Oh well, it was almost great. Charlie Kaufman is clearly a genius, and director Spike Jonze is clearly a genius, and the majority of Adaptation is clearly genius — it’s just too bad that the three spend so much of the movie cheerfully pointing out these self-evident truths.