Adapt or Die

2002: The Year in Movies

Adapt or Die

2002: The Year in Movies

Adapt or Die
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2003 6:48 PM

2002: The Year in Movies

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Sarah:

That was a ravishing defense of Adaptation: Charlie Kaufman should send you orchids. I'm with you pretty much until your clincher:

4) At last, realizing near the end that the chasm between the twins is shrinking: poignant bitter-sweetness. Though  still an idiot, Donald has proven himself generous enough to deserve Charlie's  gratitude. With Donald's generosity as an example, Charlie can begin to realize that all his crippling worry about integrity hasn't just kept him from writing a decent word—it's turned him into a selfish ass, and  bulldozed his life.

At its best I don't think Adaptation is about Kauffman's cleverness, or meta-wizardry, or even originality versus Hollywood selling out. Writer's block is, at bottom, about inaction versus action, endlessly self-measuring worry versus the flow that comes when you  choose to live. The Charlie Kauffman of the film's first half is a pitiable monster; Donald is the moronic angel who helps turn him back into a  man. That he does so with hack strategies—obvious structure, low  expectations—makes it no less of a rescue.

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Here is, I'm afraid, where YOUR movie is better than Charlie's. I can't accept that "Charlie Kaufman" has "chosen to live," even though a case has been made to that effect in the film. He has participated in (and written) a ludicrous, third-rate scenario that represents, as Roger has said, the sort of climax that Hollywood executives like to slap onto unfinished movies before or after they're disastrously test-screened. The idea that Kaufman's obsession with integrity has kept him from life isn't dramatized, unless you mean the life represented by his agent. ("I'd fuck HER in the ass.") His failure to make it with his English friend is a consequence of timidity and self-hatred, not integrity; and if Donald's brashness inspires him to seize the day, well, that's about the oldest scenario (nerd-becomes-a-winner) in the Hollywood playbook.

I think you're right when you suggest that Kaufman ultimately sees writer's block as a failure to live—and he is smart enough to discern in Robert McKee's exhortations something more than formula storytelling rules. (This is made clear in the scene in which McKee suggests that anyone who can't find anything to write about in a time like ours is, in effect, too self-involved.) But here is where the movie confuses me. If "embracing life" means writing a stupid cornball final act that has little to do thematically (I don't care WHAT you say on this point, Tony) with anything that has preceded it, it doesn't signal that "Charlie" has gone from a monster to a man. It suggests that "Charlie" has become a Hollywood monster.

This, I guess, is what I meant by not having the intellect (or, frankly, the will) to penetrate all those layers of irony.

Have a good weekend, folks. Roger, I hope you do make a cameo appearance next week. And y'all keep those cards and letters coming.

David

Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times' film critic. David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can e-mail him at movies@slate.com. Sarah Kerr is Vogue's film critic. A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.