Released in 2002 ▪ Review posted January 5, 2015
“An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.”
Nicolas Cage delivers two distinct characters in Adaptation, each with fully realized personalities. His performances are spectacular. Setting aside the fact that Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation is a work of unparalleled brilliance, that Meryl Streep makes every collaborator look great, and that the director, Spike Jonze, has an astonishing record of quality, Nicolas Cage’s performance is the best thing about this film. By far.
Adaptation, much like Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, is a semi-autobiographical work of fiction written by Charlie Kaufman. Nicolas Cage plays the movie version of Kaufman. Crippled by anxiety, Charlie is a successful screenplay writer in the movie as well. He mostly limits his social interactions to his twin brother Donald, also played by Nicolas Cage. While Charlie struggles with his inability to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, carefree Donald takes a mass-market course in writing screenplays, effortlessly writes one, and sells it immediately.
A standoff unfolds between two brothers as they are unable to relate about anything, even their shared success as writers. While Charlie is initially confident only in his professional superiority to Donald, he starts to unravel as his brother’s success mounts. Charlie wants The Orchid Thief to be a screenplay where nothing happens and the characters don’t change. To Charlie’s horror, Donald writes a hackneyed action thriller about a psychotic teacher with multiple personality disorder. When Charlie eventually breaks down and asks Donald for help with his movie, they uncover a hidden conspiracy involving Susan Orlean (played by Streep) and her secret lover involving a rare orchid that becomes a drug when crushed and snorted. Charlie ultimately gets the Hollywood ending he tried so hard to avoid, when his brother is shot and his pursuer mauled by an alligator.
Adaptation is the result of Charlie Kaufman’s actual assignment to adapt a real book called The Orchid Thief, written by a real writer named Susan Orlean. But real-life Charlie Kaufman doesn’t have a brother. Real orchids don’t have hallucinogenic effects. Susan Orlean didn’t write an alligator attack scene into her book. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred and bent in Adaptation, creating a world both inside and out of reality simultaneously. The best person I can think of to occupy this dimension is Nicolas Cage. He fills it with such scope and talent that he’s almost unrecognizable as Charlie or Donald.
Cage’s Charlie is a ball of self-induced stress, working under the shadow of his previous screenplay, Being John Malkovich, and worrying it’s the only thing he’ll ever do well in his life. Cage plays him with a wiry and nervous energy. He connects with Charlie’s deep feelings of self-doubt and it shows in all aspects of his characterization. When he interacts with people outside of his comfort zone, Charlie recoils listening to them talk. It’s nuances like this that make Cage’s performance so outstanding. Physically and vocally, he’s like a dog that’s been abused by southern California. He’s meek, pitiable, and the opposite of what Nicolas Cage usually portrays (although it has been done a handful of times, and with great success in The Weather Man). Charlie is like a watered-down and more disciplined Ben Sanderson.
Donald, however, is a ne’er-do-well who makes easy conversation with strangers and constant overtures for his brother’s approval. Nic Cage as Donald is constantly barging into rooms interrupting him(self) thinking, writing, masturbating. It’s hysterical. Donald is lovable, even more so as he is constantly rebuffed in his dopey quest for fraternal approval. He is portrayed with a high-energy swagger. He’s satisfied with things that are good enough, not worrying about artistic merit. He’s the personification of Nicolas Cage in every Michael Bay or Jon Turtletaub movie. It’s a deft realization of the Nouveau Shamanic style.
Cage is incredible as both brothers. He’s not dialing anything in, he’s not guessing. All of his energy is channeled into Charlie and Donald in completely different ways. Each character is a representation not only of who Charlie Kaufman is and who he fears he’ll become, it’s also a representation of everything Nicolas Cage was and has become. It is as self-aware as it is self-effacing, and nestled right into all this brilliance is Nicolas Cage is his top form.
Adaptation is compelling even at its most bland (large swaths of the movie are watching Nicolas Cage try and fail to write). Further proving that the Academy Awards are a popularity contest, Nicolas Cage and Charlie Kaufman received nominations for acting and writing but they lost to a movie you vaguely remember and an actor you’ve grown to hate. Looking back on all the Cage films watched to this point, I can’t think of a single performance of his that outshines Adaptation. A movie where Nic mostly interacts only with himself could have been an insufferable nightmare. In this case, it’s magic.
- How was the movie?
- How was Nic Cage’s acting?
- Did his performance make the movie worse?
- It was great, and it made the film great