PRINT January 2003



IF THIS WERE A CHARLIE KAUFMAN SCRIPT about me writing a review of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s new film Adaptation, I, Andrew Hultkrans, Artforum critic, would at this very moment be crawling the walls of my barren apartment like Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation, mentally tracing not merely every single moment of my own life but every single moment of the entire history of the universe that, in evolutionary terms, led up to this all-nighter I’m pulling because I have to write a review of this diabolically unreviewable film called—it’s been careening around my brain for weeks like a Super Ball in a Cuisinart, but I’ll say it again—Adaptation. By the time I’ve gotten to this sentence I will have justified hours of procrastination by masturbating to gauzily clichéd fantasies of sexual encounters with Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, and that hot journalist from Premiere who sat to my right at the screening and chewed on her pen the whole time. After several more hours of searing self-doubt, I will have beheld at length my pale ass in the mirror, mercilessly scrutinizing it with the chilly professionalism of a board-certified dermatologist, occasionally jiggling a cheek with my index finger for maximum private humiliation. In attempting to bring this paragraph to a close I will have measured my penis with a wooden ruler several times in order to get the most advantageous assessment while scouring the Web for the latest data on the average penile length of the North American male. I will have done all this and much more in order to deliver to you, dear reader, the essence, the core, the man behind the man behind the curtain, the shriveled little homunculus piloting with mischievous glee screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s fat, balding, shamefully inadequate body—that bad marionette, that leaking bag of bones and flesh who once wrote something hailed as “startlingly original” (1999’s Being John Malkovich) but whose cremaster has apparently reeled his creative balls so far into his body cavity that he is, presently, choking on them. Did I mention that he’s bald and fat?

OK, this isn’t working. Time to hit the press kit. Adaptation, according to some well-paid copywriter from Columbia Pictures who clearly hasn’t suffered like I have, is “a wildly unconventional comedy about a writer who, out of sheer desperation, decides to insert himself into the screenplay he’s struggling to adapt. It’s a great idea, until reality and fiction begin to overlap in the most unexpected ways.” Can you believe the gall? Cavalierly tossing around Silly Putty terms like “reality” and “fiction” as if the entire history of poetics never existed? And then boldly pronouncing—as if she’d just been appointed Big Chief Reality God for a day—that in this film they “begin to overlap”? Like strands of macramé, maybe? Easy for her to say. Sure, it’s a cinch to hide behind puff-pastry rhetoric like “wildly unconventional” and “in the most unexpected ways” when you don’t have a fucking clue what it is you’re writing about. Then again, maybe she’s cute. I’ll just lie down for a few minutes and try to imagine what she looks like.

I’m back. Press notes no help. Perhaps if I start with a string of those meaningless modifiers that quote-whores like Roger Ebert dish out so they can appear on film ads and posters, I’ll get on a roll. Maybe I’ll get on the poster too, which would be so frickin’ meta. (You’ve heard of meta—you read about it in the New York Times Magazine recently). Here goes: Adaptation is dazzlingly inventive! Blazingly trailblazing! You’ll be so riveted you’ll look like the Lusitania! Outscreams Scream! Outflanks Barton Fink! Plays like The Player in that play by Pirandello! God, this is tiring. How do they do it? I think I’ll take a nap.

All right, I just had a terrifying, sheet-soaking nightmare that my editor was leaning over me in bed. His face was purple from standing in an inverted L position for too long, and his mouth was obscenely huge as he chewed up the hard copy of this manuscript and spit it at my face in five wet bursts: "Cut—the—self—indulgent—crap!” Right. There’s only one way out of this wildly unconventional review where reality and fiction overlap in the most unexpected ways: plot summary with some clever critical asides and a general sense of where I stand on the film. Ahem.

Adaptation, true to its title, depicts real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s agonizingly humiliating attempts to adapt real-life New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s real-life nonfiction best-seller The Orchid Thief for the screen. Nicolas Cage, who plays both Kaufman and Kaufman’s wannabe screenwriter twin, Donald, has called his performance “a Cubist thing.” Meryl Streep plays Orlean, and her casting is beyond perfect: No one better personifies the New Yorker than Meryl Streep. Think about it. As the middlebrow sophisticate Orlean, Streep says, “I do have one overriding passion: I want to know what it feels like to have an overriding passion.” She finds that passion in real-life Florida orchid breeder John Laroche, whose obsessive quest for a certain elusive orchid mirrors (in the book) Orlean’s quest for passion and (in the film) Kaufman’s quest for the essence of Orlean’s book and, in turn, the meaning of adaptation itself. Cubist, right? For his part, Jonze works in some lovely Koyaanisqatsi-style set pieces that distill such premodern concerns as the history of the universe and Darwin’s The Origin of Species into bite-size eye candy. The film is cripplingly funny and in many ways more audacious than Being John Malkovich, even if Jonze and Kaufman’s talents are less seamlessly integrated this time around. The high-concept Hollywood pitch? Adaptation is Barton Fink meets The Player in Manhattan Murder Mystery. There. Did it. One hundred words or less.

Andrew Hultkrans is editor in chief of Bookforum.