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A Departure from Movieland 

Due to early holiday deadlines, we were unable to confirm the slate of new movies for the first week of the year. We anticipate Adaptation to be among them. -- Ed.

*Adaptation (R)
Columbia Pictures

Given that Hollywood produces a pageant of self-congratulation every March, it seems there should be some sort of fatwa against the manufacture of self-involved cinema. The Player, State & Main, My Life's in Turnaround, Swimming with Sharks -- do we really need another movie about Movieland?

Maybe so. Spike Jones' Adaptation is no mere homage to cinematic nobility or an easy indictment of Tinseltown vanity. Celebrity cameos are limited to the detritus of his last effort, the wonderfully original Being John Malkovich. Adaptation is the story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) and his struggle to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief into an honest, faithful screenplay. As Hollywood requires tightly structured stories with neatly wrapped-up endings, Charlie is at a loss to adapt what he calls "that sprawling New Yorker stuff."

Cage is assigned the double whammy of playing both the desperately self-doubting Charlie and his carefree alter ego: his painfully clueless twin, Donald. The former has all the bona fides of a tortured writer: self-loathing, the capacity to agonize over every sentence, and penchant for chronic masturbation. His forehead is filled with beads of sweat, his eyes open wide as if to thoroughly take in all his failings. Like a wallflower schoolboy, women make him quiver. That Charlie Kaufman ever wrote more than a single sentence is a miracle, though his schemes and obsessions are as hilarious as they are sad.

As if to throw salt on his wounds, his dilettante twin Donald takes a $500 self-help/screenwriting seminar, adopting his brother's hard-earned avocation like a get-rich-quick scheme. Only Donald proves a more competent, if less original, writer as he is free of Charlie's crippling self-doubt. He breezes through the draft, a preposterous serial killer story, which Charlie reluctantly turns over to his agent.

Adaptation also follows Susan Orlean's growing infatuation with the subject of the same book Charlie struggles to remain faithful to. Through intermittent flashbacks, the story of The Orchid Thief is revisited in the Florida swamps. Played by a toothless Chris Cooper, John Laroche hops swamps with the unselfconscious passion lacking in Orlean's solipsistic milieu of literary New York.

The two narratives cross paths when Charlie becomes obsessed with Orlean and decides the success of his adaptation lies in meeting her. Only he can't muster the courage to speak to her and instead stews in his hotel room. When he learns that his agent has picked up his brother's script, Charlie hits rock bottom and pleads for his aid.

The twins soon follow Orlean to Miami where they witness her journalistic indiscretion with Laroche: the two are involved in an affair involving a mind-altering substance not worth further discussion. It is here that the story takes an absurd twist, parodying the Hollywood imperative of a memorable ending. However, the film was already full of enough absurdity that the ending doesn't quite feel like a departure, but rather like Spike Jones' merely revving his engines into high gear.

Adaptation is a load of fun, a meditation on the creative process and a reproach against self-scrutiny. Both Susan Orlean and Charlie Kaufman are liberated from their demons through engagement with unlikely individuals whose passions obliterate their stifling inhibitions. For Charlie, his brother's annoying naivet is really a light out of his own dark tunnel; to Orlean, Laroche embodies what she most yearns for as a writer.

Charlie's self-loathing grows a little exhausting, and Streep's Orlean seems both too old and too graceful to be believable as a writer in crisis. However, these problems never detract from Jones' frenetic energy and surprise twists. Adaptation is less about screenwriting or Hollywood than it is about the transformative power of real human interaction. The ending is perhaps absurd, but I suppose even a film set in Hollywood's periphery can't forsake all of its requirements.

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