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Being Charlie Kaufman
By Ann Morrow

Adaptation
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.


All that jazz: Zeta-Jones and ensemble in Chicago.

My Kind of Town

Chicago
Directed by Rob Marshall

Chicago 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 Hart.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Undercover Story

Narc
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 as usual.

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 to watch.

—S.S.


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