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The Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean

. "Adaptation"

The Spike Jonze approach to movie story telling in technique and style is to create a situation of real time in which the characters are relating their experience while it's "really" going on, something like he did in "Being John Malkovich". This achieves a certain quality of spontaneity, which may be a bit loopy but isn't all bad.

The effort to be original plays out in interesting ways in "Adaptation" in which a writer, in this case Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a character representing one of the real screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman, having just come off the success of his screenplay for "Being John Malkovich" is hired by producer Valerie (Tilda Swinton) to adapt writer Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) non-fiction book on orchids. (Yes, there is a real Susan Orlean who wrote a book on orchids called "The Orchid Thief") Somewhere in that book is a story line and the author's relationship to orchid expert and poacher John Laroche (Chris Cooper) but Charlie has a devil of a time extracting any kind of drama until he reads enough of it to discern what is buried in the subtext.

We interrupt this review to raise a question: since when would a screenwriter writing something like "Being John Malkovich" be assigned an adaptation of a book on orchids? Producer Valerie, intelligent though she may be, is a bit off her commercial senses to think that's a hiring that'll pay off for her film company. No wonder Charlie is struggling so much. But, you see, his efforts are not going to waste since the struggle is the story -- it's what we're seeing.

Okay, back to the review. As Charlie reads Orlean's book we get flashed back to the incidents she describes, in which this nutcase John Laroche leads his small band of American indians in the legally doubtful act of removing a very rare specimen of orchid from a swampy wilderness in which it grows and, having been caught red-handed by the local warden, takes off on a diatribe about how he himself never touched the plant and how the native Americans are allowed to.

In order to get her story about the orchids and the orchid man, Orlean had to research him and we see her following this mad man in his orchid quests and becoming fascinated by his provocative energies and wholehearted devotion to the plant.

At the same time, our screenwriter, Charlie, as he studies Orlean's book, labors with the intimations of a relationship between the orchid book writer and her subject, Laroche. Charlie realizes he needs to research Orlean herself to confirm his inferences, correctly sensing that this is where his story is. He takes off for a personal interview with Orlean as though she's going to reveal anything to him.

Also at the same time, Charlie's brother Donald, his alter ego, comes to live with him, to bask in his success, to learn screenwriting from the master, and to write his first screenplay. With a germ of an idea from Charlie, Donald is off on his story, developing it with commercial zest, almost ensuring its success, and illustrating exactly the opposite kind of writer that Charlie is, one of those writers who struggle mightily to incorporate expression and meaning in their screenplays, a comment on Hollywood (boxoffice) values. It's a statement written by a guy who should know.

Cage is very impressive as Charlie and Donald. His choices for delineating the two unique personalities are contained and so precisely on the mark that there's never confusion about which brother is which. With a likeness that borders on the identical, except perhaps for wardrobe, you might expect a certain exaggeration for the sake of identification, but there's no more of it here than there would be in the real life of twins. Kudos to Cage and director Jonze for depending on essential subtleties to do the work. A broad, unencumbered smile can only be Donald's. The furrowed brow of concern while wrestling with ideas, that of Charlie. This straight reliance on character attributes suggests a greater respect for the abilities of the audience to discern than other film makers might provide with similar material.

Tilda Swinton is not given much attention by the press for the role she plays here. Clearly, this superb actress is playing for the lark of it (and the paycheck) and is in a role calling for barely a tenth of her potential and singularity. We mention it because we think anything she does is worth a mention.

When we get to Meryl Streep's role as Susan Orlean, we get to something we think is of award caliber. Nothing new for Meryl Streep. Somehow the award gene has gotten into her DNA. How this plays out on the award circuit this year will be interesting in view of a competing performance in "The Hours". Also fine, but this is a more comprehensive and fully realized character, which calls for a bigger cheer for award achievement here, rather than there.

And, then, there's Chris Cooper. Count on him getting an Academy Award Nomination for this work. An actor who has always been held in the highest esteem by his peers and serious moviegoers (take "Lonestar" as a prime example or, if not, take "The Horse Whisperer") here creates a loony tune of a guy whose immersions into varied subjects have led him to be regarded as an expert in the field. His boisterous conviction in what he's doing dwells harmononiously with an essentially modest frame of reference. He may not be as surprised by Susan Orlean's interest in him as she is but he understands it as pure animal attraction and is ready to participate in the circumstances.

The sweetly unforgettable Maggie Gyllenhaal ("Secretary") also takes on a minor role in support of the shenanigans as Caroline and an even smaller role is that of Catherine Keener, held in a sort of awed rapture by the Kaufman boys for her work in "... John Malkovich". She looks good, is about all you can say about the distance in which you see her here.

Oddly, the style, while refreshing, would seem to command moderate praise, but its likelihood of attracting a big audience of fans, given that it somehow works, as well as its mass of casting talent, suggests big success. Valerie (the producer who hired Charlie) seems to have been right.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
                                             Cinema Signals

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Comments from readers:
Poorly written
Site rating: 5

The attachment between Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper and their behavior is silly and not believable.

                                                           ~~ Margo 

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Nicolas Cage as the Kaufman boys, on the set.

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