By Ann Morrow
Directed by Spike Jonze
Adaptation opens on the set iof
Being John Malkovich, where the screenwriter, schlubby
Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), is being ignored by John
Malkovich. “How did I get here?” Charlie asks himself during
one of his comically self-deprecating interior monologues.
Written by (the real) Kaufman, Adaptation responds
to the question with a warp-speed montage of his beginnings,
starting with the Big Bang and cruising through the entirety
of evolution until Charlie emerges from his mother’s womb.
He is then snubbed by Being co-star Catherine Keener.
And while Charlie suffers through an agony of self-consciousness,
his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) blithely scores
with a vivacious make-up artist (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
A semi-autobiographical riff on real-life moviemaking, Adaptation
is directed by Being’s Spike Jonze. Almost all the
characters are based on actual people, except for doofy Donald,
who serves as Charlie’s happy-go-lucky alter ego. Perhaps
only a triumvirate of surreal and cerebral weirdness such
as Kaufman, Jonze, and Cage could’ve pulled off this flamboyantly
inventive and extremely funny treatise on writing and meaning.
Charlie is struggling with his latest screenplay, an adaptation
of The Orchid Thief, an interior meditation on the
mania for rare flowers by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean
(Meryl Streep). It’s a seemingly impossible task by anyone’s
standards, and for Charlie, his frustrations with the assignment
mirror the frustrations of his personal life—basically, he’s
too insecure to have one.
And then Charlie gets the inspired idea to write himself—and
his writer’s block—into the screenplay. As Donald says, “that’s
weird,” but it also provides a hilarious framework for the
artistic process. Kaufman handily overcomes the problem of
dramatizing a writer sitting idle at the typewriter by allowing
Charlie’s mental process to be heard through voiceover narration.
The result, thanks to Cage’s intuitive comic timing, is laugh-out-loud
funny. Another device the film skews with finesse is flashback.
Adaptation jumps back and forth from three years previous,
when Charlie had a nervous meltdown trying to describe his
ideas on capturing the passion and simplicity of The Orchid
Thief to the producer (Tilda Swinton). He wants to write
a movie about flowers, but not a movie about flowers being
used to make drugs, and definitely not a movie with sex and
violence and car chases. You have to wonder how Adaptation
ever got the green light.
The creation of The Orchid Thief is shown through flashbacks
to Susan in Florida, where she’s researching her subject,
John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a low-life horticulturist who
is arrested for poaching orchids out of a state-protected
wetland. Even though he’s missing his front teeth, John has
raw sex appeal (provided by Cooper’s remarkable performance)
and a fierce intelligence. The flashbacks are filled with
his feral philosophy on the mutability of plants and people,
and through them, we come to understand the beauty of the
book, and therefore Charlie’s tortured attempts to stay true
to Susan’s prose. He becomes fascinated with her fascination
with John’s passion. But yearning isn’t exactly Hollywood’s
idea of a concept. Making Charlie’s writer’s block even worse
is the fact that Donald, a rank amateur, is successfully churning
out a script for a ridiculously clichéd serial-killer thriller.
One of the film’s running jokes is that Donald has “structure”
and Charlie doesn’t.
Charlie’s writerly dilemma is solved when “reality” takes
a turn into cinematic melodrama. Susan returns to Florida
to have sex with Laroche, who is extracting a feel-good drug
from the orchids. Guns are drawn, and a chase scene through
the alligator-infested swamp ensues. This swerve into fantastical
satire is not as funny as what comes before (although Streep’s
methody approach to “Suzy” is plenty amusing), but it does
allow Donald, Charlie’s buffoonish foil, to show depths of
his own. In an extraordinary feat, Cage creates two totally
separate but equally comic, even poignant, personalities.
That the subtextural relationship between the brothers is
resolved with a conventional ending doesn’t detract from Adaptation
at all. Like the wildly beautiful orchids that are found
in rotting swamps, the mere existence of this wildly original
film is a minor miracle.
that jazz: Zeta-Jones and ensemble in Chicago.
Kind of Town
Directed by Rob Marshall
is being touted as a film that could bring back the musical.
While it’s unlikely the film musical will ever truly make
a comeback—the divergence between pop music and Broadway has
become a chasm, making the genre suspect as a commercial proposition—Chicago
proves that it’s at least possible to try. Oozing style, confidence
and conviction, director Rob Marshall’s cinematic reimaging
of Bob Fosse’s show is smart, sexy and funny.
The story of killer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), her rival
murderess Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and their too-slick
lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) is one durable property.
Based on a 1920s play by Maurine Dalla Watkins, Chicago
had been filmed twice, once as a silent with Phyllis Haver,
and again in the mid-’40s with Ginger Rogers, before Fosse,
along with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, turned it
into a musical in 1975. The story is overflowing with cynicism:
Love, sex, the criminal-justice system and the media are gleefully
shown in the worst possible light.
For this version, Marshall keeps the Fosse style and most
of the songs, while devising an effective structure that contrasts
the reality of the story with the exaggerated unreality of
its musical numbers. And the songs are plentiful. Chicago
is that cinematic rarity, a musical with wall-to-wall songs
that tell the story and contain the drama, as well as dazzle
the eye and engage the ear. Happily, there isn’t a clunker
in the bunch—and the cast is more than up to the challenge,
each running with their opportunity to shine. Zeta-Jones,
with the most musical experience, is a brittle, bitchy Velma.
She leads the ensemble of death-row dames (including Deirdre
Goodwin and pop star Mya) on the smoldering and comic “Cell
Block Tango,” in which each woman defiantly explains—and dances,
in the classic Fosse style—the circumstances of her lover’s
demise. Queen Latifah belts “When You’re Good to Mama” with
raunch and humor worthy of Mae West, while Richard Gere holds
his own in the courtroom-as-circus number “Razzle Dazzle.”
The real surprise of the cast is Zellweger. She proves a fine
singer and dancer, and it is her very lack of previous experience
that adds to her effectiveness. Zellweger’s lack of vocal
mannerisms is refreshing.
If there’s any complaint about the production numbers, it’s
that they are uniformly brassy in tone. There’s little modulation
in mood—it’s as if the filmmakers were afraid the audience
would lose interest if all the stops weren’t being pulled
out every time.
Interestingly, an entire number (“Class”) was excised just
before the film was released, reportedly to speed things along.
While this inarguably made the film shorter, it could not
have helped Chicago’s momentum. The film doesn’t have
any. This is not to say it is slow or boring, just that the
show-stopping dynamism of each number is specific to that
sequence. The drama doesn’t build; things just happen. Dropping
the song did have one unfortunate consequence: As “Class”
was a big number for Zeta-Jones and Latifah, it unfairly tips
the balance of the film’s interest towards Zellweger’s Roxie
These sound like big strikes against the film, but they’re
not. The ingeniousness of the storytelling, the skill and
charm of the performers, and the wonderful score combine for
a richly entertaining musical film.
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Though the main story in this film concerns the vicious, unsolved
murder of a policeman, Narc begins with a completely
different set of horrors. Using a dizzying hand-held camera,
the filmmakers follow undercover narcotics cop Nick Tellis
(Jason Patric) on a confusing midday chase through a low-rise,
rundown Detroit neighborhood. There’s a shocking series of
violent acts, ending in an unexpected and terrible example
of “collateral damage.” With this masterful sequence, writer-director
Joe Carnahan puts the audience on their guard, and aligns
them with the point-of-view of an undercover cop: At any moment,
violence can erupt and anyone can die.
The film fast-forwards eight months. Tellis is asked to take
over the cold case of a murdered undercover narcotics cop.
He is teamed with detective Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a friend
of the dead man. Where Tellis is soft-spoken and reserved,
Oak is a volcano, fueled by righteous rage and the need for
revenge. Their complementing personalities (and exceptional
police skills) fit together well, as Tellis and Oak work the
means streets of Detroit looking for leads. The film is very
strong on this point; however outrageously Oak and Tellis
behave with suspects, the characters still seem like professionals.
There’s no Dirty Harry-style mythologizing of either
man. This doesn’t mean they are choirboys. The two work largely
unsupervised, with minimal attention to legal procedures—it’s
left to the audience to ponder if this is because they are
working a politically important case involving another cop,
or whether their disregard for civil liberties is business
The performances are superb. Patric has played this kind of
role before, but there’s nothing overfamiliar about his intense
work here. Tellis identifies with the dead man—he lived the
same work—and Patric conveys his character’s dangerous understanding
of the pressures and temptations of the job. It’s Liotta,
however, who looms largest in Narc, literally and figuratively.
He pulled a De Niro for the role, adding 30 pounds and growing
a beard to play a man so wrapped up in his rage that everything
else in his life has spun out of control. Neither his partner
nor the audience is ever sure what Oak’s motives are, or what
he’ll do next. Oak is given the most compelling monologues
and visceral violence in the film, and Liotta invests both
with fearsome authority.
Perhaps the most dazzling performance is by the writer-director,
however. Carnahan, with his first feature film, found a way
to make the familiar new with tight screenwriting, thoughtful
character development, and smart direction. He’s a filmmaker