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The making of the making of a film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SUN SCORE

***

Resembling a realistic version of a fractured fairy tale, Adaptation is by far the funniest movie from Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

On paper it sounds hopelessly solipsistic and "inside." After all, Kaufman bases his story - about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who's in a death-struggle to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction best seller The Orchid Thief - on his own efforts to adapt Orlean's The Orchid Thief. But when Kaufman plops Nicolas Cage as a slapstick version of himself in the middle of the action, he forges connections with audiences stronger than any he hammers out in this year's earlier Human Nature, his forthcoming Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and even the intermittently uproarious Malkovich.

Possibly without knowing it (as the calamitous final 40 minutes suggest), Kaufman's Kaufman becomes just the right artiste for Everyman and Everywoman. He testifies to the inertia that afflicts us all. He falls deeper into set ways the more he tries to "get outside" himself. He digs into the book's material: the search for passion of New Yorker reporter Orlean (Meryl Streep) and what happens when she finds it in the pursuits of an eccentric Florida orchid expert (Chris Cooper). But Charlie's vision of infinite possibilities paradoxically thwarts his creativity.

By contrast, his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage), who crashes in his Hollywood pad and takes up screenwriting, is a compendium of social skills and negative virtues. Donald may be a novice, but scripts, love and friendship come easily to him. Although Donald shares screen credit for Adaptation, we presume he's a fictional construct: Charlie's comic-nightmare image of a guy happy to shortcut his way to fulfillment. He even takes Robert McKee's how-to course on screenwriting.

Donald would never find himself in Charlie's dilemma: striving to transform Orlean's book into an honest-to-God movie without revamping it into a Florida chase film along the lines of Smokey and the Flower Bandit.

As Kaufman the Adaptation screenwriter homes in on the haphazard work process of Kaufman the Orchid Thief adapter, he turns the trick of making his alter-ego's wobbly, inchoate ambitions more attractive than the frightful competence of film-industry types. (They include Tilda Swinton as a smart, elegant production executive and Ron Livingston as Kaufman's practical, hilariously profane agent.)

The first hour of the movie is a gleeful, whirling potpourri. It encompasses the evolution of Man from amoeba to Charlie Kaufman; Charlie's general romantic panic and growing obsession with Orlean; and Orlean's attraction to the earthy orchid autodidact John Laroche (Cooper). And it makes sense of all this as a script-in-progress.

Director Spike Jonze keeps each dented ball up in the air and elicits superb performances. Cage has never been more gloriously Cage-y than as Charlie, who makes masculine self-consciousness sweet, sad and ridiculous, and as Don, who makes smarminess lovable. Cooper gets to unleash the slyness and wildness that he's had to keep under wraps in a succession of limited or stoic roles. Streep shows lightness and charm - the grasp of feathery halftones she's often displayed in interviews and rarely has had a chance to put on screen. And Swinton, Livingston and the scary-funny Brian Cox as McKee provide a trio of gemlike cameos.

So it's infuriating when the movie changes mood and tone and takes a postmodern direction that flirts with and then achieves disaster. Perhaps Charlie Kaufman the Adaptation writer failed to realize that Charlie Kaufman the Orchid Thief adapter is a comically rich inhabitant of the Zeitgeist - a man paralyzed by his own potential. Instead of reveling in character, the rest of the movie plays with "concepts."

We're supposed to be appalled and amused when it takes the route Donald would have dictated for Charlie's Orchid Thief script. The miscalculation is so flagrant it almost makes you forget how much fun the movie gave you to that point.

Happily, Kaufman is still near the start of his career. Inside this schlemiel may be a mensch struggling to get out.

Adaptation

Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper

Directed by Spike Jonze, Released by Sony

Rated R

Time 114 minutes

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