Strange fascinations fascinate me

“Maybe the ghost orchid only blooms in the mind of people who have walked too long in the swamp.” – Susan Orlean

Watching Adaptation for the second time in my in life, nearly 20 years since my first viewing, I was struck by its painfully accurate depiction of the agonies of being a writer. Of course this is Charlie Kaufman’s m.o. to foreground the anxieties of his protagonists/stand-ins, twisting through their mental gymnastics of self-loathing morphing into jealousy, pride, inspiration, and back again like the film’s metaphorical ouroboros. Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald are the perfect personifications of the confident id and the tortured ego (with the super-ego occasionally moderating in voiceover), one sailing through life with success and popularity as the other seethes at the perceived ease of everyone around him. 

I’ve seen hundreds more movies since the last time I watched Adaptation (and become a full-time writer myself), so I’m now able to situate its actors, characters, and script within new contexts. Kaufman’s leads are always the sweaty kind of men described as a nebbish, starting with John Cusack’s puppet-maker Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich (referenced throughout Adaptation in a series of winking meta moments from Kaufman and the films’ shared director Spike Jonze) and followed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director Caden Cotard in Kaufman’s magnum opus Synecdoche, New York. We get more of the same from David Thewlis’s depressive author Michael Stone in the stop-motion feature Anomalisa (my least favourite Kaufman film for its streak of cruelty), and most recently Jesse Plemons’ haunted soul Jake in the tragicosmic surreality of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things

Cage brings his expected level of hyper-commitment to Adaptation’s pair of starring roles, with that unhinged flash in his eyes that we see in his finest moments onscreen, when he seems equally capable of exploding into violence or warming your heart with sincere displays of affection. Meryl Streep is equally masterful as the New York Times writer Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief article and novel that provide the basis of this screenplay while expanding far beyond its original plot. As a meditation on the longing to love something (anything) so passionately that it becomes an obsession, Orlean’s words are rich fodder for Kaufman to dissect and extrapolate, while imagining just how deeply into the swamp she could travel to satisfy her desires.

That kind of cultural wanderlust from blue check media types, venturing into the compelling worlds of people perceived to be in a class below them, has been seen in the years following this film in quasi-exploitative “documentary” series like Serial, S-Town, or most recently Tiger King. Chris Cutler’s performance as Adaptation‘s front-toothless Floridian orchid thief John Laroche even has a few shades of Joe Exotic in his wily, back country charisma. In Kaufman’s hands it’s easy to imagine how Orlean could escape into Laroche’s world of sex, drugs, and rare flowers as an antithesis to her boring coastal elite life in NYC, snorting lines of green powder from the ghost orchid that send her into a fascinated state of babbling bliss.

When Adaptation briefly becomes an action film in its third act, Kaufman creates a brilliant send-up of Hollywood scripts that nonetheless holds you in its grasp. This is also acknowledged earlier in the film with Donald Kaufman’s fake screenplay, The 3, a cliche-ridden serial killer story with a multiple personality twist that naturally sells for six figures. Charlie, on the other hand, is so stuck adapting The Orchid Thief that he suffers the indignity of attending a screenwriting workshop led by Robert McKee (Brian Cox, bringing the same pissed off outbursts he would perfect decades later on Succession), before ultimately caving into asking for help from the twin brother who he views as an idiot and imposter. 

The core lesson of Adaptation arrives at the denouement of its action sequence, just before a deus ex machina in the form of an alligator that McKee would have hated. In this rare tender moment between the brothers, Donald gives Charlie the realization that it’s a losing battle to fixate on whether other people love you, and ultimately matters most what you love yourself. Any solitary pursuit can be lonely and torturous, as we learn in this film from Orlean, Laroche, and both Kaufmans, but we keep returning to the swamp, compelled by our own ghosts.

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