Offsetting Charlie’s pessimistic ying is his fictional twin brother Donald (Cage), who is the opposite of everything Charlie is. Donald is carefree, enthusiastic, lives life like there is no tomorrow, and has little trouble connecting with the opposite sex. Enthused by his brother’s career, Donald wants to be a screenwriter after attending a seminar on screenwriting. His first screenplay not only impresses Charlie’s bosses so much that they want to sign him on with them, but also causes Charlie’s insecurities to sink deeper.
This Adaptation is not of The Orchid Thief even though the book and its author are credited. Nevertheless, Kaufman elaborates on the genesis of The Orchid Thief, for ulterior reasons that will be explained. While he is not appearing to adapt his own torments, he details Orlean’s research on orchids and her interviews with real-life orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper) who is the subject of her book. Kaufman pays much attention on the relationship with Orlean and Laroche, which for the first two-thirds of the story is of little significance since Charlie’s literary struggles is still the main focus. As the plot unravels itself into the final one-third, the story turns from adaptation to fiction. There is more behind The Orchid Thief than meets the eye, and one million ways to end according to the film’s tagline. So Kaufman decides to draw from the unoriginal Hollywood-influenced script ideas to develop an unpleasant confrontation between Donald, Charlie, Orlean, and Laroche. One that obviously never occurred to their real-life counterparts since Donald does not exist. So that you may know that while this film is initially based on a true story, it is a fictional work in itself.
Knowing that the story is fictional and Kaufman’s self-depreciation is probably exaggerated or fabricated does not kill the spirit of the former. Despite what he insinuates about himself onscreen, Kaufman crafts a brilliant screenplay. He intersperses Orlean’s creation of the novel with Charlie’s adaptation of the novel in Godfather II style execution. On the Orlean side, he explores her growing relationship with Laroche while interviewing him. She sees in him a fiercely passionate spirit that she wants but a successful career and a marriage do not give her. Much of her character lies in her emotional expressions: admiration of Laroche when he talks passionately about flowers, sadness when he is cynical, emptiness when she lies in bed with her husband, happiness when she talks to Laroche on the phone.
On the Charlie side, Kaufman does not hesitate to make fun of himself (if any of it is true). He, through Charlie, shows his methods of preparing a script, from attempting to adapt a book into a screenplay, using a tape recorder to record his ideas, to how the ending is going to be (it sounds lame if you don’t understand the humor of it). He uses voiceover narration to describe Charlie’s introspective thoughts, an approach that is panned by the instructor of the screenwriting seminar that Charlie attended at the behest of Donald. (Incidentally, the instructor also expresses outrage at the idea of characters experiencing inner frustrations with no profound change in character by the story closing.) For comic relief, he answers some of Charlie’s difficult life questions with documentary clips of the history of the Earth. While Charlie explains why he does not want his script to have the typical Hollywood ingredients of sex, guns, drugs, violence and triumph against all odds cramped into it, Kaufman adds insult to injury by including all of them towards the end of the film.
On the acting side, Cage and Streep carry the film with their excellent performances. Cage does a fantastic job of separating the personalities of his dual roles, making a clear distinction between Charlie and Donald. Along with Charlie’s insecurities, Cage gives him a sullen and slouchy demeanor. As Donald, he is a ray of sunshine and optimism. Streep’s performance is rivaled only by her radiant beauty, which seems to be undiminished by age. Even though there is little breadth of her character to work with, she gives Orlean a rich emotional character to make viewers care about her, and make them want to embrace her. A Best Actress Oscar nomination for her is not far away. Cooper deserves a mention as Laroche. He is funny when playing him as a Smart Alec but is poignantly sensitive when he bares his soul, and cynical and acerbic when he is neither of the former two.
Adaptation has many witty moments, most of which are at Kaufman/Charlie’s expense. But that is just the icing of a cleverly written script that pieces many unbelievable situations together to make Charlie’s experience funny, interesting and yet realistic. Cage and Streep are a power pair in this one.
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