Adaptation
dir. Spike Jonze
Opens Fri Dec 20 at various theaters.

"I'm a walking cliché."

That's how Charlie Kaufman the character, played by Nicolas Cage the actor, describes his predicament in Adaptation, the film written by Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter and directed by Spike Jonze the director. I know exactly how he feels, except that I'm not walking. I'm a sitting cliché.

I'm sitting in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel, where Kaufman, Cage, and Jonze have convened--along with me, three other journalists, and a retinue of handlers--for a "round-table" interview to promote Adaptation, a film about a writer's attempts to adapt a nonfiction book into a Hollywood screenplay. And just like the film we're all here to discuss, the situation presents a curious window into the nature of impossibility. Unlike the film, however, the round table fails to convert its impossibility into art. The impossibility on this table (which is not, in fact, round) is of conducting a meaningful interview with these three artists, each of whom I consider to be a kind of genius, and with any one of whom I could imagine having a fantastic one-on-one conversation. But there will be no fantastic conversations here today--only a volley of increasingly uncomfortable answers to perfunctory questions, dotted by awkward silences. The silences are mine. I can't think of a single thing to say.

I'd like to blame the extreme discomfort of the horribly unnatural setting. But I can't. The real problem is me. I have no business in this room. I have nothing to ask, nothing to add. I like interviewing famous people whose work I admire, and I admire the work of these three famous people a great deal. Confronted by their presence, however, I'm struck by the sense that their work, though artful and funny and suggestive, is essentially transparent, which is to say that Adaptation answers its own questions.

In the film, Charlie Kaufman (Cage) is hired to write a screen adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, the true story of a rare-flower poacher. Since the book is devoid of conventional dramatic narrative, Kaufman is faced with the neurotic dilemma of inventing one without sacrificing his ethical desire to stay true to the book's character and avoid turning it into bland Hollywood product. This stirs up the screenwriter's most intense insecurities--about the nature of the work he has chosen, about his own talent, and ultimately, about his worth as a human being.

In the course of his struggles, he clashes with his (fictitious) twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), an easygoing novice screenwriter who talks and thinks exclusively in the kind of hateful clichés Charlie is bent on avoiding. In the end, he writes himself into the script, just as Orlean (Meryl Streep) inserted herself into her book, making Adaptation into a story about a story about the search for a story about searching for a story.

And speaking of searching for a story... the interview feels like a perfect combination of watching a movie and appearing in one. The film I'm watching is about three filmmakers gathered, semi-reluctantly, to answer questions. When the discussion inevitably turns to matters of budgets and grosses, I cringe along with the interviewees, because, frankly, could anything matter less? But my indignation is disingenuous, because the movie I'm in is about four journalists--one of whom is me--gathered to ask questions of three filmmakers. As much as I like to pretend that writing about film for The Stranger exempts me from the moral ghetto of entertainment journalism, moments like this force me to accept that I am as much a tool of the industry as any junket-hopping hack who has lucked into the cushy, irrelevant life of seeing movies for a living, and thus feels entitled to call Nicolas Cage "Nic."

And so I settle into the role of impotent observer. I stare at Cage, who looks like $20 million in a dark suit and dress shirt open to the chest. I look over at Jonze, bearded and slight in an indie-rock cardigan and cheap tie. I turn to Kaufman, who wears a tight brown shirt tucked into tight brown jeans. Prompted by Cage, I stammer out a dim query about artistic self-absorption, which Kaufman answers curtly. Then our 25 minutes are up. In the end, all I can think to wonder is how many other journalists have already had the idea to write an article exactly like this one.

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