On the Make 

A writer's struggle in Adaptation; a cop's desperation in Narc.

To I have an original thought in my head?"

"My life is a cliché. I need to turn my life around."

"I have no understanding of anything outside my own panic and self-loathing."

These are the words of Charlie Kaufman in the throes of writer's block, waddling around his apartment in wrinkled flannel and sweatpants, perspiration spreading across his brow, speaking feverishly into a tape recorder about his inability to make progress on his latest screenplay.

Kaufman, the celebrated oddball screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, and the soon-to-be-released Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is famous for having very original thoughts, of course, and with Adaptation, his latest collaboration with Malkovich director Spike Jonze, he accomplishes what may well be a film first: Adaptation is a movie in which the screenwriter's claim of primary authorship is so complete that he becomes as played by Nicolas Cage the film's protagonist.

And, unsurprisingly, Adaptation is a great film about the act of writing, with a keen sense of the elaborate system of goals and rewards that writers give themselves to push slowly materializing work along: "Okay, I'll finish this paragraph then (have a snack) (walk the dog) (watch some television) so I can clear my head enough to write the rest." It captures the onanistic nature (figurative and literal) of the solitary exercise and the often-exhausting struggle between the desire for the relief that completion brings and the desire to do good work. Yet Kaufman portrays his own writing process in an adaptation an interpretation of someone else's work.

Some background is in order: Kaufman in "real" life (and this is just the sort of film that inspires those quotation marks) was hired to write an adaptation of a real book, The Orchid Thief, by a real writer, New Yorker scribe Susan Orlean. The book is, as Kaufman (the character) says to a studio executive in the film, "great sprawling New Yorker stuff." Orlean's title subject is John Laroche, a thirtysomething Floridian and self-taught horticultural expert arrested for leading three Seminoles, for whom he worked as a nursery manager, into the Fakahatchee swamp and extracting pillow cases full of endangered and protected orchids. In the course of detailing Laroche's case, and his life, Orlean delves into the history and character of Florida, the subculture of orchid collectors, the fascinating (no, really) history of the plant itself, and the nature of collecting and obsession.

Kaufman, both on-screen and off, obviously thinks very highly of the book. In the film, he tells a studio executive that he wants to be true to the book, that he doesn't want it to be a Hollywood thing with car chases and guns and drug deals, with people falling in love and learning life lessons. Later, when struggling with the adaptation, his agent suggests he "make up a crazy story," since, after all, that's what he's known for. But Kaufman responds, with utter sincerity, "I didn't want to do that. I have a responsibility to the material. I wanted to grow as a writer. To do something simple. To show people how beautiful flowers are."

And to a degree, Kaufman's script is a success. Many of the more memorable yet seemingly noncinematic passages in the book find their way onto the screen: a meditation on the delicately specific relationships between different types of orchids and the insects that pollinate them, for instance. But these scenes invariably bleed into Kaufman's personal life, such as Orlean's description of the different varieties of orchids morphing into a romantically unsuccessful Kaufman's description of different varieties of women.

But Kaufman, in real life and in the film, finds himself incapable of writing (or, one wonders, unwilling to write) a straight adaptation of The Orchid Thief, whatever that might mean with a book about flowers, and so Adaptation interweaves three layers of action. There is the action that takes place within The Orchid Thief itself: the story of plant poacher Laroche (here played brilliantly by former Lone Star leading man Chris Cooper) and his Florida orchid schemes. Then the film pulls back for a second layer of action, envisioning an elegant Orlean (Meryl Streep in fine comic form) writing the book in New York. And finally, there is Kaufman struggling with his screenplay adaptation.

As the film develops, it's this last layer that begins to take over, with Kaufman's own insecurities and doubts blocking out his ability to get The Orchid Thief onto the screen. Adaptation is a film that unfurls as it is written, or, as the film itself intimates when Kaufman compares himself to an ouroboros, the mythical serpent that eats its own tail, it's a film that begins to devour itself as it goes along. As Kaufman's frustration mounts, Orlean's "great sprawling New Yorker stuff" becomes "that sprawling New Yorker shit," and it becomes clear that Adaptation is less a film about flowers than a film about failure, though perhaps the most deliriously entertaining film on that subject ever made.

Because the film's characters stand in for real people, there seem to be different levels of communication embedded in the dialogue and one can see a discussion between the real Kaufman and Orlean over the screenplay's relationship to The Orchid Thief happening in the film. At one point, late in the film, Cage's Kaufman looks up from reading a particularly evocative passage in the book, gazes at Orlean's photo on the jacket, and says, "Such sad, sweet insights. So true. I don't know how to do this. I'm afraid to disappoint you. You've written a beautiful book." It comes across as an actual apology to Orlean for a screenplay that some, including possibly Kaufman, might view as an act of extreme selfishness.

To further convey his frustration and anxiety over the writing process, Kaufman creates a fictional twin brother, the cheerfully crass Donald (also Cage), who is as happily oblivious as Charlie is helplessly self-conscious.

Enticed by the Hollywood lifestyle, the deadbeat Donald decides to become a screenwriter too, just like his successful brother. So, while Charlie stares at blank pages and spews self-loathing into his tape recorder, Donald enrolls in screenwriting seminars given by real-life formula guru Robert McKee (a blustery Brian Cox).

As Charlie's inability to adapt The Orchid Thief worsens, as the pressure from the studio and his agent builds, and as Donald's unlikely career takes off, a desperate Charlie takes his agent's advice and solicits Donald's help on the script, even attending one of McKee's lectures. Charlie then humiliates himself by asking the action-oriented McKee a question about how to write a script where the characters "struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved, like in the real world."

With McKee assuring Charlie that if you "wow them in the end, then you've got a hit," Charlie gives up and turns the screenplay over to Donald, who earns his (real-life) co-writing credit with a denouement that takes a gleeful dive into the exact same Hollywood clichés Charlie had earlier denounced. What to make of this ever so ambiguous plunge into the abyss? Is it a final admission of failure and defeat? A satiric swipe at Hollywood convention? An insistence that personal contentment trumps artistic integrity? All of the above? Ultimately, perhaps Adaptation is a film whose conclusion has to be written by the audience. Chris Herrington

Narc, Joe Carnahan's new film, begins with a heart-stopping chase sequence. Detective Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) is in hot pursuit of a crazed junkie through a project-y neighborhood in dirty Detroit. The scene is shot with a hand-held camera. We hear determined footsteps and Patric's frantic, heavy breathing. Our own breath deepens. Our heartbeats speed up.

Tellis meets up with the "perp" in a playground. He has to make a split-second decision. Tellis is screaming, in equal parts terror, failure, and exhaustion. Blackout. This is Narc.

After the incident at the playground, Tellis sits out to re-prioritize and hold his life together. But months later an undercover cop has been killed on the job, and nobody seems to be able to produce any evidence. Tellis, all too successful at worming his way into the underbelly of the Detroit drug scene, is reluctantly returned to active duty to help the murdered cop's partner solve the case.

Enter the partner, Lt. Henry Oak (Ray Liotta, with much more complicated intensity than his usual, glaring rage). Hard-edged and not hung up on, say, rules or anything like that, Oak definitely puts the "bad" in the expression "good cop, bad cop."

So, Oak and the kinder, gentler Tellis are a tense but effective team that becomes tested as details of the case hit closer to home: Tellis neglects his family as he becomes obsessed with solving the murder, and Oak's closeness to the case obscures his judgment and temper both to near-disaster by the film's dizzying end, which achieves the same frenetic desperation as the film's arresting opening.

This is Carnahan's second film. His first, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, was a well-regarded, gritty action-comedy that Carnahan was miraculously able to compose for a mere $7,500. His rising star is easily explained by the slick and stylish look and feel of Narc shot mostly in weird, cold, clinical, washed-out bluish colors that not only make being a police officer feel like extra-dirty work, they make Detroit look downright unlivable. Or extra-unlivable. Either way, audiences will leave Narc with a little more appreciation for good, drug-free neighborhoods and a little less faith in the police force, whose enforcement of the law can, when only slightly corrupted, seduce the most honorable toward their own rights and wrongs. Bo List

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