Top positive review
Bursting With Invention
on 6 September 2017
They (the critics?) say that a film lives or dies on the strength of its screenplay, so how appropriate it is that one of the most inventive of all screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman (together with director Spike Jonze), should both dissect and subvert Kaufman’s own 'day job’ in this remarkable 2002 film. Reincarnated on screen in the form of two Nicolas Cages (playing Charlie and his fictional twin, Donald), the screenwriter’s persona is deliciously split in two – one (the real Charlie?) attempting to adapt (real-life) New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) 'unfilmable’ book, The Orchid Thief, into a 'commercial screenplay’, whilst the other (Donald) ditches any notion of 'artistic creation’ and attempts to rehash any (and all) Hollywood plot clichés into a blockbuster of his own. In parallel, and in flashback, we get the real-life story of how Orlean, recognising the need for some form of genuine passion in her life, is taken in by Chris Cooper’s faux-environmentalist, arch-capitalist and purloiner of the 'evolutionary wonder orchid’ – thereby giving us to ponder (at least) two other dimensions (personal and scientific) to the film’s title.
As has happened before with Kaufman’s kaleidoscopic approach to film-making (notably in the later, thematically similar, Synedoche, New York) there is, arguably, too much going on here, but via the film’s mix of sharp (often very funny) dialogue, sterling acting performances and inventive visuals, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer levels of conceptual invention at play. For me, the film is at its strongest during the antagonistic interplay (visually depicted on screen totally seamlessly) between Cage’s twins – the actor gets Charlie’s nervy, angst-ridden suffering of writer’s block to a tee, with a highlight sequence being where he resorts to visiting Brian Cox’s 'brutally honest’ real-life creative writing guru, Robert McKee, ('God help you if you use voiceover in your work!’). The personal/scientific thread encapsulated in two superb performances by Streep and Cooper (the latter an Oscar-winning one) is fascinating and, at times, touching, but given the way Kaufman’s screenplay develops, rather has the ground swept out from under it. Depending on your point of view (or what you ‘expect’ from cinema), this is either another clever, enjoyable facet of the film or the film-makers overdoing the 'having their cake and eating it’. Having bought into the satirical, contrived nature of the film, I would side with the former – even then, it’s still possible to enjoy a moment of poignancy at the denouement!