Adaptation DVD

Charlie Kaufman has a problem. The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of “Being John Malkovich” and the current “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” has been asked to adapt Susan Orlean’s best-selling novel “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. Kaufman soon learns that as written, “The Orchid Thief” is not really movie material.


Sure, he could spice it up with sex, car chases, drugs and other genre specific selling points, but Kaufman wants to write a screenplay about passion and reality. Good luck trying to sell that. Kaufman’s obsession begins to get the best of him, and those around him, including twin brother Donald, who is camping out in Charlie’s house while he completes his own screenplay, a thriller that subscribes to every notion that Charlie detests.

Kaufman’s quandary is examined in “Adaptation,” a brilliant dark comedy directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”). Not everyone’s cup of tea, “Adaptation” is a wild card of a film, one moment offbeat and funny, the next solemn and intense.

Even though “Adaptation” stands alone as a quirky comedy, anyone in on the joke will appreciate the authors complex sense of humor. The in-joke is that the real Kaufman, flustered by his inability to turn the book into a film, decided to write a film about his trials and tribulations. Mixing fact and fantasy with the skill of a seasoned bartender, Kaufman breaks all of the rules by incorporating himself into his own story.

What could have and should have been a case of pretentious posturing actually becomes an engaging stroke of genius, allowing Kaufman to create a twin brother (Donald) as his inner voice, an alter ego who wants to take the easy way out and make big money. Charlie decides to do something more important with the tale of a reporter and her subject, a Florida eccentric named John Laroche, whose passion for orchids forces her to face up to her own passionless existence.

Playing both Charlie and Donald is Nicolas Cage in a stunning performance that comes alive thanks to digital trick photography and the actor’s ability to cut two distinct characters from the same cloth. With a thinning head of hair, Cage brings Charlie’s insecurities and Donald’s bravado vividly to life. Not once during the course of “Adaptation” do we feel like we’re being deceived. Cage is at his best playing eccentric characters, and he has two winners in Charlie and Donald.

Even without the in-joke, “Adaptation” stands alone as comedy that isn’t afraid to take risks. Those in on the joke will be amazed at how well Kaufman and Jonze juggle the numerous balls they toss into the air. A less skilled team of filmmakers wouldn’t be able to pull off the film’s numerous highs and lows.

As real life writer Orlean, Meryl Streep is a delight. An actress of many moods, it’s always a pleasure to see Streep lighten up. Even when her character eventually undergoes a dramatic story arc, Streep is always watch-able. Charlie and Susan are two sides of the same coin. They’re both looking for passion in their lives, Charlie in his writing, Susan outside of a loveless but well manicured marriage.

Their search leads both of them to Laroche, who on the surface seems like an odd match for a snooty Manhattan reporter. Played with chameleon charm by Chris Cooper, Laroche is the May Pole from which Charlie and Susan swing. Like Donald, Laroche doesn’t seem to let the outside world affect him. He’s confident not only in himself, but in everything he does. He jumps from one madcap scheme to another, but to Laroche, they’re exercises in learning. When he decides to learn about the Internet and create his own adult web site, he creates the best porn site on the net.

That inner passion is what draws Susan back to Florida, where Laroche still lives in a ramshackle house with his father, nursing a breed of orchids that produce a mind expanding powder in the greenhouse out back. Even though Susan eventually resorts to using the drug to open up and experience life, what she fails to realize is that Laroche is the real aphrodisiac.

Some of “Adaptation” is so funny it hurts, and anyone who has ever tried their hand at writing will appreciate the constant barbs that line Kaufman’s screenplay. Other moments in the film are extremely dark, but they’re a necessary break from the light. Comedy isn’t always pretty, and when Donald offers to help Charlie with his screenplay, “Adaptation” begins to take on aspects of his mind set. The last half hour takes a major detour from the rest of the film, but Kaufman wisely lays the blame on Donald, his alter ego.

We all should be so fortunate.

DESSERT

Thank goodness “Adaptation” is such a feast, because there is very little left over for dessert. Instead of packing the DVD with audio commentary and featurettes explaining the film’s conception and offbeat narrative, Columbia-TriStar decided to release the DVD without any noticeable extras. Instead, they have encoded the film as one of their Superbit titles, and indeed the video and sound are excellent. The film is delivered in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format, enhanced at 16:9 for widescreen televisions. The picture clarity and content are flawless, with strong, vivid colors, superior blacks, flattering flesh tones, and excellent attention to detail. The film features a myriad of styles, from warm interiors to bright, sunny exteriors, and all look sensational. Depth of field, especially in the darker scenes, is remarkable.

The various soundtracks, most notably the DTS track, are also alive with information. Even though the film isn’t a sound mixer’s wet dream, it does feature some interesting channel splits, and all are crystal clear. Basses are there when needed, treble is sharp and distinct, while the dialogue track is front and center. Surround sound is used sparingly, but when needed makes a terrific statement. Rear speakers contribute musical and ambient sound cues with authority. The front sound field delivers a perfect left-to-right stereo split. The DVD also features 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround tracks in English and French, and a 2.0 Stereo track in English.

ADAPTATION

Columbia-TriStar Home Video

Rated R

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