Adaptation  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs way up. Scoop's comments in white.

As I write this, Adaptation is in only in a handful of theaters, but it is already a critical smash, one of the best reviewed films of the year. The initial reaction from the public also appears to be positive, which is somewhat surprising because it is an esoteric film. Scores are high at all the voting sites, and in its trial run, in seven theaters last week, its daily box office average went as high as a phenomenal $16,000 per screen on Saturday.

In one of the strangest, most introspective films ever brought to mainstream audiences, Donald Kaufman, a fictional character in the film, is given a writing credit. How can that be? You see, it is a film about a writer named Charles Kaufman trying to turn a precious book by a New Yorker scribe into a movie. The task is impossible. His twin brother, Donald, is also a screenwriter who works on mindless projects like teen slasher films. He ends up taking over the project, although that fact is not spoon-fed to the audience. Here's the twist. The film they are working on is the very film we are watching.

Adaptation itself is written by Charles Kaufman. (Brother Donald is fictional). It is his attempt to create a film from a static, precious, reflective, offbeat, philosophical book written by a New Yorker journalist. This film is about his struggle to create this film.

Are you still confused? Well, the first half of this film reflects the way Charles Kaufman would have approached the project, as an arty meditation on life and beauty. The second half of the film represents the way Donald Kaufman would have re-written it as an exciting genre film, according to the McKee principles of screenwriting. The first half, therefore, is static, full of apothegmatic insights and reflections about human nature. It is simply an offbeat New Yorker piece about a colorful man who steals orchids from state land, and the reporter who covers the case. In the second half, all the characters are transformed into the usual suspects seen in thrillers. It turns out that the sophisticated New Yorker staffer is having an affair with the toothless Orchid Thief, and that they are building a drug empire from ingredients distilled from orchids. There are gunfights, murders, chases, last minute deus ex machina rescues, and people eaten by alligators. Well, to be more accurate, the alligator is the deus ex machina. More of a deus ex everglades.

Art copies parody. Some months ago, I reviewed Clint Eastwood's version of Bridges of Madison County, imagining that the film had really turned out the way people feared it would when Eastwood originally announced the project: squinty-eyed showdowns in dusty saloons, and a gunfight in which Meryl Streep drew a hidden gun from her support hose and did shoulder rolls to get off a few shots at Lee Van Cleef. The original book, of course, was a classic chick-book about true love and dreams which are lost but not forgotten. Many people thought Dirty Harry was the wrong choice to be the director, but the Dirtmeister actually did a pretty damned good job.

Well, guess what? Adaptation took "The Orchid Thief", an book which was as precious as "Bridges of Madison County" and far quirkier and more erudite, and actually did all the things I imagined in that facetious review. Meryl Streep does lurid sex scenes in a mobile home, poses topless for a porno web site, snorts drugs, growls like a Tarantino character, and crawls through the swamps packin' heat. At least she does that in the second half - the "Donald" portion of the screenplay. In the first half, the "Charles" half, she is her usual sad-eyed, refined, well-mannered, Upper East Side self.

I have never been a fan of Nic Cage, but he is excellent in this movie, using his whiny voice and hang-dog look to great advantage as both of the author's alter egos. Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep are, as always, tremendous. Like Cage, they also played two roles each, although the credits don't really define it as two separate roles. The audience must figure out that their personalities in the "Donald" half of the script are completely different from the characters they had played up until that point.


  • Judy Greer is topless in an imaginary seduction scene.
  • Meryl Streep's picture is seen topless on a porno website (presumed to be a pastiche with Streep's head and someone else's body)
  • Nic Cage does an unrevealing, distant nude scene from the side, as he types in his chair.
  • Chris Cooper is seen from behind in an extended nude scene in which he chases and catches Cage, who has been peering through the window.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

For such an acclaimed film, it is a bare-bones DVD offering.

Kaufman is the screenwriter of such offbeat fare as Human Nature and Being John Malkovich. Director Spike Jonze also worked with Kaufman on Being John Malkovich.

Crazy, imaginative stuff. Like those other two Kaufman movies, it is intelligent almost to a fault, darkly humorous, and just plain odd.

Oh, yeah ... and amazingly entertaining.

Tuna's Thoughts

I should have hated this film. It is constantly self-referential, violates the fourth wall, uses nearly constant voice-over, and even has an evil twin.

Amazingly, I found it to be one of the top films of 2002.

The cast was spectacular, especially Cage, Streep and Chris Cooper. Cage was so into the twin roles that they didn't need to add any physical differences to help the audience know which of the two they were seeing. You could instantly tell with no more than expressions and body language which of the brothers you were looking at. The writing was very clever, the pace was lively, and the twists were not at all predictable.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three and a half stars, close to four. Berardinelli 3/4, Entertainment Weekly A-. Berardinelli's three stars was the lowest score I saw.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it 8.0/10, but Yahoo voters are even more positive at 4.4/5, and Metacritic users averaged 8.7/10
  • Box Office Mojo. It was not a hit, but was a "big" art movie, finishing with $22 million at the box.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "C+. A brilliant movie, albeit a "love it or hate it" kind of film. I am in the positive column. One of my personal "ten best" of 2002". Tuna says, "I also found it to be one of the top films of 2002. If it sounds interesting and you haven't seen this, do so! C+."

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