After the success of Being John Malkovich, writer Charlie Kaufman was asked to adapt The Orchid Thief, the best selling novel by Susan Orlean (played here by Meryl Streep). Struck by writers block, and struggling to adapt an unfilmable novel, Kaufman had an idea. To write a film about a screenwriter struggling to adapt an unfilmable novel. Self indulgent? Possibly. But the result is one of the most original, daring films made this year.
If this film is to be taken seriously, Kaufman has some serious self-esteem issues. The opening scene has Nicolas Cage as Kaufman reciting all the things he hates about himself. The film itself portrays the writer as an insecure, whining, chronic masturbator. Cage also portrays Donald, Kaufman's twin brother, who is brash and confident but a much less talented screenwriter. As Donald Kaufman doesn't actually exist, it's tempting to theorise that Donald is actually Charlie's alter ego.
As well as Charlie and Donald's travails, we also get to see the film of The Orchid Thief as Charlie writes it. Director Spike Jonze zips back and forth in time, and it's a tribute to his talent that the audience isn't totally lost in the first ten minutes. We also see some of Charlie's home life, including the violinist he's secretly in love with, Amelia (who also may or may not exist, depending on which theory you subscribe to).
This is one of those films you can only really experience - it's almost impossible to explain it. It's as surreal as Being John Malkovich, and therefore probably won't be to everyone's tastes. But if you're willing to engage your brain it's a rewarding watch, and virtually demands a second or third viewing.
Cage is superb as the Kaufman twins. For too long he's sleepwalked through stuff like Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Gone In 60 Seconds. Here though, it's possible to forget that the twins are played by one person. Streep is also very good, although her character is rather similar to the one she played in The Hours. The real honours go to Chris Cooper as protagonist of The Orchid Thief - almost unrecognisable from American Beauty, he imbues John Laroche with real pathos.
In the hands of anyone else, Adaptation could have been self-referential, clever-clever nonsense. With Jonze and Kaufman behind it though, it works beautifully. Some criticism has been levelled at the last half-hour of the film, when it seems to veer towards Hollywood formula. However, once you see it, it becomes clear that it's a deliberate ploy - another reason why this multi-layered, bizarre masterpiece is one of the films of the year.