2002: The Year in Movies

Dogs of War
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2003 2:36 PM

2002: The Year in Movies

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Dear gang,

To war, to war, to war we're going to go!

Onward, then, to the Adaptation debate. Let me first say (not too warlike of me, but true) that in reading thumbs-up and thumbs-down reviews and talking to people who've seen it, I think I side somewhat with your logic, David.

So, this film is about "adaptation," in the literary, the genetic, and the behavioral sense of accommodating and rising to life's challenges? Pshaw. As you say, Kaufman just couldn't figure out how to turn Susan Orlean's charming account of a Florida weirdo who stole orchids into a movie. His attempt to connect writing to evolution is strained. The focus on his own travails comes close to being unforgivably selfish. And the third-act twist, which suddenly seems to embrace Hollywood plot clichés after mocking them, is too arbitrary and willful to tell us anything about how "storytelling" works. So, enough with the meta.

As I said, I saw this early and alone, having heard nothing, and the experience was unsurpassably strange. I talked to the screen. I wasn't sure what to think and couldn't imagine that audiences or even other critics would take to it.

But still: I felt neither tricked nor let down. As after an exotic four-course dinner, I vividly preserved a sense memory of distinct emotions and moods:

1) Belly-laughing at Nicolas Cage's early shenanigans, playing both neurotic Charlie (unable to progress in adapting Orlean's book because he's captivated by his own inadequacies) and fictive twin brother Donald, whose happy idiocy (buffoon dancing, fatuous and blithely corrupt work on an awful screenplay called The Three) is an even funnier yang to Charlie's yin.

2) Dread, after it begins to feel that there's nowhere left to go—that continuing to watch this nebbish sweatily overthink everything would be like accidentally lying down in a coffin.

3) Chutzpah shock, beginning with the moment Charlie visits the formulaic screenwriting guru Robert McKee (another figure who exists in real life, deliciously played by Brian Cox with a bellowing certainty that recalls Phil Hartman) and continuing through the unmotivated, deservedly controversial but funny plot twist.

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 Kaufman'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 Kaufman 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.

Kauffman may have failed utterly at adapting Orlean's book. From the evidence, he appears to be a hopeless tangle of a man. But, teamed up again with director Spike Jonze, he's taken another bold stab at forcing a philosophical question—which is more important, art or happiness?—onto the screen. As a comedy. With Nicolas Cage doing a priceless bump and grind. It's good enough for me.

What do you think, Roger and Tony? Does this have anything to do with your experience?

Till soon, everyone. But David, let's get ready to talk about The Triumph of Love on Monday. I'm afraid I found it feeble. And Gangs of New York: a new clichéd, evasive mythology of NY to replace the old one. And Chicago: wonderfully entertaining fun, not so cold as all that, but about half as great as it could have been if the stars could really, really dance. And The Two Towers: Our readers are absolutely right to wonder where we are on this, the juggernaut phenom of the moment. I love much about it and like most of the rest but felt like putting films on my list that a critic might hope to help.

Roger, if we can't speak again this round, farewell and very sorry to lose you.

Best,
Sarah

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