Meta-Movie Madness

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), the balding, self-loathing, blocked screenwriter at the center of "Adaptation," has been hired to write a movie based on Susan Orlean's nonfiction book "The Orchid Thief." He rails about the kind of hackneyed movie he doesn't want to write--the kind where characters learn tidy life-altering lessons. So, instead of "The Orchid Thief," he writes "Adaptation" (the movie we are watching) about a blocked screenwriter trying to write a movie based on Orlean's book, in which Orlean herself (Meryl Streep) becomes a character, along with the orchid-obsessed hero of her book, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), Kaufman and his screenwriting twin brother, Donald (Cage again), a happy hack with none of Charlie's self-doubt.

Does this sound insufferably self-indulgent? Not at all. This latest collaboration between the real Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the creators of "Being John Malkovich," is an inspired flight of fancy, an oddly poignant examination of the creative process, a rumination on adaptation (orchids to their environment, books to the screen and misfits like Charlie to life) and, in its ultimate irony, a story in which our hero learns a life-altering lesson.

Orlean heads to Florida to check out Laroche, who has been arrested for stealing rare plants. He's a great oddball character, part con man and part scientist: garrulous, funky, erudite, obsessive and largely toothless. Orlean, increasingly obsessed with Laroche, ventures with him into the swamps in pursuit of the rare ghost orchid. Meanwhile, Kaufman, a flop with women, is becoming sexually obsessed with Orlean, and his fictions begin to invade her factual terrain: guns are brandished, hallucinogens ingested and Kaufman's life is threatened by the characters whose story he's adapting.

In the wrong hands, the lunacy could have gotten out of control, but Jonze has near-perfect pitch. He never forces the farce, rooting even Kaufman's wildest digressions in real emotions. Streep, showing her true comic colors, hasn't been this much fun to watch in years. She has an inspired moment when, stoned out of her gourd, she grooves on the eternal harmonies of a dial tone. As Laroche, Cooper is a flamboyant revelation (I smell an Oscar nomination). As Charlie, Cage bugs his woebegone eyes in startled panic reminiscent of Gene Wilder. And he's equally funny as the affable Donald. Brian Cox appears as screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whose theories of film construction inspire Charlie's contempt--until he adopts them. (Cynically or sincerely?) "Adaptation" is a brainy, exuberantly funny rebuke to Hollywood's timid formulas--and proof it doesn't have to be that way.

P.S. The script of "Adaptation" is credited to Charlie and Donald Kaufman. There is no Donald Kaufman.