Adaptation reminded me of a couple of things. One was the obscure IF game Calliope from the '98 comp, about which I wrote, "Check it out — it's the old 'can't come up with anything to write about, so I'll write about someone who can't come up with anything to write about' gag. Which, admittedly, was pretty clever the first time someone tried it. And the idea may have been executed even better since then — I can't say for sure, because I can't read cuneiform." The other was a reply to a self-pitying Livejournal entry which informed the author that "You're saying 'I would rather go off and sulk than change my behavior, and this is ok because I'm a jerk, see, and jerks are allowed to act like this, and ha ha, nobody can tell me different because I've already said I'm a jerk.' I dunno, I guess saying you're a jerk gets you some sympathy letters from people who say 'oh, I can see he's not a jerk from his livejournal posts — so since there are only two possibilities, he must be a perfect young gentleman; I'd better write and cheer him up.' But, like, wouldn't it be more rewarding (albeit scarier and more work) to just not be a jerk?"

Adaptation is about a lot of things, but primarily it's about a guy (with the same name as the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich fame) who is assigned to adapt an expanded New Yorker piece about an orchid thief into a screenplay, but can't think of what to write and so ends up writing about how he can't think of what to write. And just as bad movies will often try to win over the audience by poking fun at their own hokiness, Kaufman in Adaptation attempts to pre-empt audience rejection of his self-indulgence by missing no opportunity to castigate himself for his self-indulgence and otherwise berate himself. (Ha, you can't call me a pathetic loser if I'm already calling myself a pathetic loser more vehemently than you would!) Towards the end there's a key shift (not entirely unlike in Mulholland Dr., actually) and the film changes tacks, veering into parody. But parody is easy and I felt like I'd seen this before.

All that said, Adaptation still manages to be fairly enjoyable. It's reasonably funny and does have its share of insights (though these too are couched amid scenes of "Kaufman" highlighting "sweet, sad insights" in the orchid thief book). Much of the value of the film is provided by the stabilizing presence of Laroche the orchid thief, who isn't a writer (unlike the other three main characters). This is a big problem in all branches of art: you're supposed to write (or sing, or paint) what you know, but what writers know is writing, what rock stars know is being a rock star, and so forth. So you get a lot of rock songs about how it sucks to be a famous rock star and a lot of writers writing about writing, which at its worst can devolve into novels about a middle-aged professor in a creative writing program whose agent is on his back about how she really needs a final draft in thirteen weeks and his wife doesn't understand him and that cute young thing in his three o'clock class sure seems like she could use a mentor and on and on. Screenwriting might be the ultimate object of discourse to a screenwriter, but you're not going to have an audience of screenwriters. All in all, Adaptation was a film I guess I liked, but didn't much respect. To which Kaufman would no doubt say, "Yeah, because I suck! What the hell am I doing thinking I could get away with writing a screenplay about a guy writing a screenplay when I'm such a loser..."

I also recently watched Nurse Betty, the first film in which Neil LaBute (director of the great In the Company of Men and the underrated Your Friends and Neighbors) directed someone else's screenplay. It takes the archetypal can't-tell-TV-from-reality soap junkie and sets a couple of hitmen after her thanks to a plot contrivance (actually, the biggest contrivance is the bit that blurs her distinction between life and fantasy... trauma messes with people, sure, but this is hardly removed from just conking her on the noggin). The film also gives one of the hitmen a less than believable romantic/idealistic fixation on her which seems to be there merely because McKee's Story Seminar says parallels are cool. (Interestingly, while some critics decried this parallel as over-obvious, Roger Ebert made a point of drawing readers' attention to it for fear that they'd miss it... I guess his audience is more accustomed to counting down the minutes to the next explosion.)

I suppose what most jumped out at me about Nurse Betty was that I couldn't sense LaBute's hand in it — show this to me without credits and I'd never have guessed he was the director. Nor would I have guessed anyone else... it's too generic. But that doesn't make it terrible, and it's a fairly entertaining couple of hours.

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