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Charlie Kaufman & Spike Jonze: Twin pleasures

I am engaged in a fierce inner struggle as I begin this article about the brilliant new movie "Adaptation." Part of me wants to write showbiz gossip. The other part wants to get serious and deal with the cinema of Spike Jonze, the inside-out screenplays of Charlie Kaufman, and the way Nicolas Cage plays twins you can tell apart even though they look the same.

High road or low road? That's the same struggle the movie itself gets involved in. Should it be a movie about an orchid thief? Or a comedy about a movie about an orchid thief?

The thief is named John Laroche. He prowls the Everglades, searching for rare orchids that the government says he can't have. A writer for the New Yorker, named Susan Orlean, wrote a book about him named, of course The Orchid Thief, and then Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman were brought in to make a movie about it. Jonze directed and Kaufman wrote "Being John Malkovich," which was the best film of 1999. Now they've teamed up again, with a cast including Meryl Streep as Orlean and Chris Cooper as Laroche.

But it isn't quite that simple. (Hollow laugh.) No, it isn't that simple because The Orchid Thief is a book with a great deal of information about orchids. Perhaps too much information. I know, because I started listening to the audiobook of The Orchid Thief and bogged down somewhere in the fourth cassette during long lists of exotic orchids and Victorian orchid hunters who prowled the jungles of the world murdering one another.

Charlie Kaufman came to the same conclusion about the difficulty of writing a screenplay based on The Orchid Thief. We know this because "Adaptation," which is one of the most devious and entertaining screenplays ever written, is about how he got bogged down. At the same time he was sweating blood over his keyboard, wouldn't you know that his twin brother, Donald, was hammering out a trashy potboiler while using the screenwriting theories of Robert McKee, the screenplay guru who advises his students to study and emulate (i.e., copy) the most popular screenplays of the past.

There is a crisis in the movie when Donald sells his screenplay for big bucks and Charlie in desperation takes a McKee workshop and is given frank, brutal and profane advice by the great man himself, who pointedly observes that "Casablanca" is the greatest screenplay ever written. The inescapable conclusion is that Charlie's screenplay isn't.

I hope you are not confused yet, because the confusing part only starts now. It starts when I enter a room at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago to interview Nicolas Cage, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. There they are, positioned around the coffee table like my parole board. I have been warned they will not pose for photographs and will not do TV interviews. The publicity for this movie is being handled with all the candor of Putin explaining what was in the gas. I open with a casual question for Kaufman: "Do you really have a twin brother named Donald?"

The three men jerk visibly. This is obviously the wrong question. Kaufman looks at Cage and Cage looks at Jonze and Jonze answers. I did not understand what he said, but luckily I had a tape recorder, and so here are his exact words:

"Well, I just wanna...that's the first question, that Donald question, which is something we get a lot and we don't wanna--we're not trying to be deceptive about it or trying to be, you know, like make a trick out of it, but I guess in all earnestness we want to try and leave it part of the experience of the movie is what, you know. These characters, you know, certain aspects of the movie exist in the real world and part of it's fiction and to try and leave that open so people can have that experience going and seeing the movie without necessarily having it all defined and so I guess that's sort of our concern, in part, about sort of opening that can of worms."

In other words, no, Charlie does not have a twin brother named Donald, even though he shares credit on the screenplay. "Adaptation" weaves back and forth between reality and fiction so skillfully, however, that if Charlie doesn't have a twin he might as well.

Real people appear as themselves in the movie, including John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, and John Cusack. There really are a Susan Orlean and a John Laroche, but they are played by Streep and Cooper, wading through the Everglades looking for the Deaths' Head orchid. These scenes are in the book, which is non-fiction. Other scenes, where Nicolas Cage, as Kaufman, stalks Orlean and develops a crush on her, are not in the book, because when the book was written Kaufman and his screenplay were not in the picture.

I hope I am not making this sound like work. "Adaptation" is one of the funniest, smartest, most diabolically twisty movies I have ever seen. And it presents a particularly tricky challenge for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Kaufman's screenplay will obviously be nominated for the Oscar, but does it belong in the Best Screenplay Adaptation category (as an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, or in the Best Original Screenplay category, as an original screenplay about a screenplay adaptation? And when the presenter opens the envelope and reads out, "Charles and Donald Kaufman," does Charlie accept on behalf of his brother?

But back to the hotel suite. It is clear that Cage, Jonze and Kaufman know they have made a great movie, and are paralyzingly conflicted about how to go about promoting it. If they don't even want to say whether Charlie has a twin, where do they go from there?

"Nick Cage must not like the movie," Jay Leno told me a few weeks ago, "because he wouldn't come on the show to talk about it." Maybe it's because he likes it too much. There's no way he can talk about his performance without getting into the matter of the mysterious twin. In the hotel, however, Cage does break down a little. To play the twins, he had to do a lot of scenes in which he was acting opposite himself:

"I'd be literally acting with a tennis ball or an X on a wall, to tell me where to look, and an earpiece in my ear listening to whatever I had already recorded so that I wouldn't overlap dialog. And then I'd try to move so it worked with my memory of what I'd done as the other character."

"I could always tell whether I was looking at Charlie or Donald," I said.

"Donald has better posture than Charlie, for example," Cage said. Jonze said, "The only difference physically was that Charlie would be unshaven and Donald would be clean shaven."

Charlie looks back and forth, fascinated, as we discuss this. "I think Donald had a little more hair," I said.

"No, he didn't," Cage said. "But it's interesting you would say that, because maybe his greater confidence made him seem like he had more hair."

"Or maybe with his better posture he stood up straighter, so I couldn't see the top," I speculated.

"Same amount of hair," Cage repeated.

"Even when they're not talking," Jonze said, "even when they're driving in the car, you know which one is driving."

"I was a fan of Jeremy Irons' performance as twins in 'Dead Ringers'," Cage said. "But I'd get frustrated when we would switch the characters three or four times a day. At one point I literally screamed out of frustration and Spike would talk me down."

Some of the funniest and most pointed scenes in the movie involve Robert McKee, who is idolized in some circles and loathed in others because of his writing workshops. In the movie, McKee is called by his real name but played by the actor Brian Cox, who incidentally is a close friend of McKee's.

"You have a lot of people playing themselves in this movie," I said, "but you don't have Robert McKee playing himself." "It seems consistent," Jonze said, "that since we were gonna have an actor play Susan Orlean, John Laroche, Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, that we would have an actor play Robert McKee. And Brian Cox was actually Robert McKee's suggestion. McKee saw it about a month or two ago and he said that it was funny, but it was fair..."

There is a point in the movie where it seems to jump the rails and become a Robert McKee formula, and I asked if that was a buried ironic commentary on the whole struggle between earnest Charlie and commercial Donald. That question inspired two answers that once again required decryption:

Kaufman: "I mean, we hold all the cards here and so again we don't really wanna to say anything about--our opinions about--I mean, in the movie, we don't wanna say anything--it's like, we wanna open up a dialog with the audience and to do that fairly I think we wanted to present McKee fairly and so..."

Jonze: "Leave it open to people's intuition of what they're going into it with, because what they're going into it with is gonna decide what they take out of it."

Which is, in fact, the simple truth. How you react to the ending of "Adaptation" will depend entirely on how you react to other movies. Some audience members will get all involved and excited and really care. Others will nod with an ironic smile. I will end this article with a piece of advice. If you attend the movie on a date, and one of you is all worked up at the end and the other has an ironic smile, your relationship is going nowhere.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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