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Uncaged - Adaptation (2002)

This year, I am going to try to get through the whole oeuvre of Nicolas Cage because my fascination with this man and his contradictions is endless. God help me.

To borrow a term from the two friends on the Blank Check podcast, this movie is so sweaty, literally and figuratively. Other than the large man sweats that Nicolas Cage’s twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman accurately suffer through, this movie, and the screenplay specifically, has to exert itself so hard to make the story, if you could really call it that, work. Charlie Kaufman had made his name with the unlikely hit and critical darling Being John Malkovich, which was so far ahead of its time that it somehow plays even better today than it did back then, especially with gender identity taking such a prominent place in the cultural zeitgeist. That movie’s existence was so tenuous that the only reason that it got made without any studio head interfering was that Gramercy Pictures was going through some serious restructuring, and there was no direct supervision of this small movie.

Adaptation’s meta-narrative about the difficulty of adapting a sprawling book called The Orchid Thief by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean almost does not stick the landing...constantly. Part of the movie’s insane charm is how much Kaufman gets away with the hackneyed tropes that he had adamantly argued against in his own movie. There’s a car chase, an illicit love affair, a musical number of sorts, and they all work in the movie somehow. I have often wondered if Kaufman’s works would be as brilliant in the hands of less capable directors. I think it helped that Spike Jonze has such a strong visual sense that the ideas that Kaufman has are much more arresting when they are directed with this much energy. Jonze’s influence is especially prominent during the many times that Kaufman narrates his own thoughts out loud, which could have been cinematic death, but Jonze and Cage make it exciting, as if we are collaborators without our own minds racing to catch up with Kaufman’s.

All the performances are so brilliant and spot-on. This may be Streep’s best modern performance, definitely my favorite, and Chris Cooper’s greasy but charming orchid thief is great fun to watch. This is also probably my favorite Cage performance, though I think Bringing Out the Dead and Leaving Las Vegas are up there. Cage tamps down on his usual mannerisms so much that I forgot I was watching an actor give a performance for the longest time. Also, I could easily distinguish between Charlie and Donald, even when they didn’t look or act dramatically differently. Usually when you give the Cage a weird costume such as a fake nose or false teeth, it spells trouble, usually entertaining trouble, but perhaps because the fatsuit is so well done, it was not a distraction to see Fat Cage. Films about the creation of art are tricky, especially for writing, since watching someone write is not cinematic. Kaufman does the right thing by making it about the artist and his own neuroses, but never in an overbearing and tenuous way.

 

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