He took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this spring, partly because the Academy loves dentally challenged performances (Walter Huston won for pulling all his teeth out to portray the old prospector in his son John's "Treasure of Sierra Madre") and partly because he's terrific.
Reviewers raved over the comedy "Adaptation" (on DVD for $26.95 list price, rental only for VHS) calling it transparently honest, wildly original and intellectually brilliant.
None of these accolades were true, but, so what? "Adaptation" featured last year's most solidly constructed screenplay. Writer Charlie Kaufman uses his considerable intelligence not to mystify, but to make his intricate story comprehensible to those of us to his left on the old IQ bell curve.
Amusingly, the film's Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination was officially credited to both Charlie Kaufman, the brooding artiste, and his identical twin brother Donald Kaufman, the happy-go-lucky hack who doesn't, technically, exist.
Here's the true story behind "Adaptation." In 1998, before his art house triumph "Being John Malkovich" made his reputation, Kaufman took a sizable advance to adapt the nonfiction book "The Orchid Thief."
Kaufman loved journalist Susan Orlean's elegant account of Laroche's ramshackle life. He didn't want to Hollywoodize the book by adding sex, violence, or important life lessons. He first tried making the movie about the orchid, then about the author (played by legend Meryl Streep), who had written herself into Laroche's story. Still, Kaufman couldn't come up with a script that moviegoers would pay to see because the book is a padded-out New Yorker article that teaches you more about orchid collecting than you care to know.
With writer's block worsening his Woody Allen-style self-loathing, Kaufman despairingly turned to the only subject he could concentrate upon: himself. He submitted to the studio a quasi-autobiographical screenplay about a character named Charlie Kaufman who can't finish his adaptation of "The Orchid Thief."
While Charlie's character propounds on his thirst for honesty, the real writer's true gift is for artifice. For example, twins with identical genes never possess utterly opposite personalities, but making Donald the anti-Charlie adds an aesthetically pleasing symmetry. (Oddly, though, "Adaptation" only vaguely spoofs a ripe target: the industry's current mania for screenwriter brother acts like the Wachowskis of "Matrix" fame.)
As the twins, Nicolas Cage is hilarious, touching and technically superb at acting with himself. "I approached it from the British school of acting," Cage noted, "Creating the characters externally, then working inward, rather than the Method school in which you work from the inside out."
The hangdog Oscar winner used to excel in this kind of experimental project. Unfortunately, just like his uncle Francis Ford Coppola (who would proclaim, "I want every moment of my life to be magnificent!"), Cage developed a taste for luxury seldom seen since the Borgia popes. He sidetracked his talent for the surreal to garner $20 million paychecks, as in last year's disastrous "Windtalkers." Here, though, he took a 90-percent pay cut, a move that paid him an Oscar nomination as a dividend.
Streep, who has now earned 13 Oscar nominations while having four babies, is simply one of those rare all-around superior human beings who happen to make acting their profession.
Cage's cousin-in-law, director Spike Jonze, keeps the visuals simple to avoid complicating the movie any further.
But is "Adaptation" as utterly original as claimed? Not compared to countless plays. For example, the hit 1989 Broadway musical "City of Angels" pits Stein, a 1940s Jewish writer trying to adapt his detective novel into a screenplay, against Stone, his book's Gentile shamus who ungratefully rebels against his own author.
Charles Darwin puts in a cameo to show "Adaptation" is really about Darwinian adaptation among both orchids and people: trendy Deep Think concept that's hooey. When the orchid expert says, "Adaptation is a profound process; it means you figure out how to survive in the world," both Orlean and Kaufman imagine he's talking about how we personally adapt to challenges.
The bleak truth is that any adapting an organism does during its own lifetime is irrelevant to natural selection. Instead, the life forms born with genes better adapted to their environment tend to leave more descendents with similar genes. This indifference to our attempts at self-improvement seems profoundly un-American, which may be why our literati constantly misinterpret Darwin.
Still, even if for the wrong reasons, the critics are right that "Adaptation" is a tremendous movie.
Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images.