Charlie Kaufman: To begin.. To begin… How to start?… I’m hungry… I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think… Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee… Coffee and a muffin… So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut… That’s a good muffin.
Ouroboros is a snake eating its own tail. Donald’s new girlfriend has a tattoo of one on her back. Donald (Nicolas Cage) thinks he should include it in his spec script, which centres on a serial killer, a cop and a victim who are all the same person. So the snake thing has…you know, symbolism. He goes to tell his brother Charlie about it, a produced screenwriter hot from the success of Being John Malkovich (1999). Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is not impressed. He is trying to adapt a book called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) for his next screenplay, but the book is completely unstructured and lacks any resolution. After months of struggling to do more than underline passages in his well-thumbed text and masturbate over Orlean’s photo on the book jacket, Charlie has had an epiphany. He has written himself into the adaptation. In fact what he is writing is what we have been watching – and the film we are about to watch.
While Adaptation is occasionally interrupted by straight scenes from Orlean’s book involving her relationship with a crazed botanist, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the bulk of the film is about Charlie Kaufman. From the opening credits we are inside Charlie’s mind as he berates himself for being bald, fat, sweaty, badly dressed and (bizarrely) not playing the oboe. Charlie may be played by a star, but the star is Nicolas Cage – never the most comforting nor traditionally attractive screen presence. Here Cage has dressed down, gained weight, and exposed his baldness for the camera. Even his voiceovers lack the self-confidence to address us directly. Charlie Kaufman is a figure so uncomfortable with himself that he cannot look the audience in the eye, even though he knows we are there. He needs the distancing device of his thoughts or a dictaphone in front of him to project himself.
The other men in the film appear as Charlie’s aspirational figures. Laroche is a doer, lacking the neuroses that hold Charlie back. When we glimpse the calamities Laroche has faced (the loss of his family, the leaving of his wife, the wrecking of his nursery by a hurricane) the film shows us the immediate devastation, followed by Laroche almost immediately back in control. Charlie envies Laroche but also cannot understand how a man could come back from such tragedies: he has difficulty finishing a script at the best of times, and the closest he comes to tragedy is not asking a girl out. He cannot write about Laroche triumphing over adversity, because both the triumph and the adversity are foreign to him.
Meanwhile Robert McKee (Brian Cox), the screenwriting guru, becomes an almost God-like figure in Charlie’s film (which is also the film we are watching, if you remember). Charlie writes to break the rules, and McKee is perceived as a celebrant who enforces them. In his screenwriting seminar, Mckee deliberately puts Charlie on the spot to expose the weakness of his argument. You will never feel as sympathetic for a character as you do when Charlie stands, slouched and singled out in the huge auditorium, while McKee bellows at him about the rules of classic screenwriting and his own shortcomings as a writer. Even dumb twin Donald’s confidence and lack of pretension means he achieves. He finishes his script. He gets the girl. Charlie Kaufman’s screen version of himself is so full of self-loathing that even his non-existent twin brother is more successful.
After the giddy ride that is the first 90 minutes of Charlie’s world, the ending will come as a disappointment to many, as it knowingly conforms to the formulae of storytelling preached by McKee and his disciple Donald, and much berated by Charlie. By the end, we realise Donald has taken over the screenplay and carved a traditional thriller out of Charlie’s unfinished adaptation of Orlean’s book. The final act puts all the clichés in place; there is a revelation followed by a series of set-pieces, including a sex-scene, a shoot-out, and a car chase, followed by the obligatory life lesson or two. A cop-out that knows and revels in the fact that it’s a cop-out is still, for many, a cop-out.
But while the ending is completely contrary to both Orlean’s book and Charlie’s ethics, the denouement is as ingenious and inventive as the film which precedes it. This film is packed throughout with so many original ideas that by the finish, a straight ending comes almost as a welcome surprise. If the film carried on in the same vein the audience might simply collapse from idea exhaustion. But more importantly, of course, Charlie Kaufman – the real Charlie – still has a controlling hand over Donald as his alter ego completes his work. Though the ending might not seem very different to that of a standard blockbuster, there’s something not quite right about it. In his screenwriting seminar, McKee deliberately warns against the use of deus ex machina. Perhaps Charlie is still rebelling against Mckee’s standardised ending; or perhaps Donald simply doesn’t know what deus ex machina means. We’re never quite sure which Charlie came first, or who’s writing who. Kind of like Ouroboros…