We open on Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman: fat, bald, repulsive. He is the widely successful author of “Being John Malkovich,” but thinks he can’t write at all. He is nervous in social situations, especially with women. He fidgets, sweats profusely and frets over his receding hairline and conspicuous gut.
Cut to Nicolas Cage as Donald Kaufman: fat, bald, confident. Charlie’s twin has decided to follow his brother into the screenwriting industry. Donald is moronic, easily amused; his screenplays are derivative and clichŽ-ridden, which turns out to be exactly what it takes to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter. His ignorance to his own ineptitude is his greatest talent. He is comfortable with the fairer sex and makes the kind of dumb jokes that are always a hit at cocktail parties. Donald and Charlie are complete opposites.
In real life, the brothers Kaufman are credited with writing the screenplay for “Adaptation,” a movie about writing the screenplay for the movie that turns out to be, well, “Adaptation.” When Charlie is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief, he instead writes about the tribulations of adapting the novel. This is the story of a writer who does not know how to tell a story.
It’s almost cheating: When you can’t think of anything to write about, you write about not having anything to write about. Charlie Kaufman even acknowledges his lack of creativity is what inspired this film about writing about writer’s block. And not only does this seem like a cheap gimmick, it’s a cheap gimmick that’s already been played. “Seinfeld” and Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” did essentially the same thing.
But there’s something interesting about examining unoriginality in a creative way. This is why “Adaptation” succeeds. “Malkovich” director Spike Jonze returns to create Charlie’s reality during their previous collaboration, revisiting the filming of “Malkovich” in a “Back to the Future”-esque manner. As Charlie skulks about the set, Donald hits on the makeup girl (played by the delicious Maggie Gyllenhaal) while working on his own idiotic, yet successful script. Eventually, Charlie appeals to his brother for help finishing his adaptation, and under his influence, the script’s ending and the movie’s ending acquire Donald’s sensationalist style.
Strange, because there is no Donald. Not in real life, at least. Donald was created by Charlie (the real Charlie) to finish “Adaptation.” In the movie, Donald physically helps his brother to complete the script. In reality, Donald the character provided Charlie with the angle he needed to finish his script. Donald helps both Charlies – real and portrayed – overcome their writer’s block and their insecurities. Cage’s depiction of the twins’ interaction makes this vivid. Cage plays two convincing losers masterfully, giving the audience a portal into the mind of Charlie Kaufman. In this way, Charlie’s deception is more honest than his reality. His true self is revealed only through sleight.
For anyone with an interest in writing, “Adaptation” depicts a familiar hell. Not knowing what to write next, searching for the right phrase, trying to create a… what’s the word?