A movie for every day of the year – a good one
The New Yorker launches, 1925
On this day in 1925, The New Yorker magazine was launched by Harold Ross and Jane Grant. Intended as a cosmopolitan magazine for the urban sophisticate – and those who aspired so to be – it started out as a broadly humorous publication, though quickly shifted its focus towards quality fiction and long-form journalism, though its cartoons have remained a key feature. Unafraid to be thought of as intelligent, educated and interested in a magazine world that largely pretends to the opposite, it could take its pick of a certain type of writer – Hannah Arendt wrote her long-form piece on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, James Thurber contributed cartoons, Salinger, Nabokov and Hemingway sent in short stories.
Adaptation (2002, dir: Spike Jonze)
Adapted from a piece for The New Yorker by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s film takes a distinctly New Yorker approach – intelligent and entertaining – to tell the story of… what exactly? At one level it is Orlean’s story, of a thief (Chris Cooper) so driven by his thirst for the rare exotic plant that he’ll pay anything, go anywhere, even kill to get hold of what he wants. On another level it’s the story of writer Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt the New Yorker piece he has read into the film we are watching. And sitting side-by-side with that story we have Charlie’s brother, Donald, also a writer, but a pen-for-hire keen to bolt together a Hollywood blockbuster by following the screenwriting edicts of Robert McKee (played as a stiletto to the McKee system by Brian Cox).
Both Kaufmans are played by Nicolas Cage and in real life Kaufman doesn’t have a brother called Donald, so we can kind of guess that Charlie is pulling a “two sides of the same coin” number here – sure he writes for pleasure, but he also wants to get paid. There is more plot than this, notably featuring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean – with whom fictional Charlie has developed an obsession – plus John Cusack and Catherine Keener as themselves, sort of. The whole thing takes that reality/fiction/actor/character shtick worked so well by Jonze and Kaufman in Being John Malkovich (in which JM played a version of himself) about two levels further.
It’s a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, with Cage admirably suited by virtue of his independently swivelling eyes to play a man who is losing sleep, weight and neurons trying to work out where to go next. Personally, I don’t think Kaufman (the screenwriter) quite manages to extract himself (the character) from the tangle he eventually winds up in, though plenty think the ridiculous, funny guns-ablazing finale to the film is entirely appropriate. Robert McKee would probably love it.
- Surely the Charlie Kaufman film par excellence
- One in the eye for auteur theorists
- Donald Kaufman gets a screen credit, even though he doesn’t exist
- Look out for an uncredited John Malkovich
Adaptation – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014