If you can't write it, join in

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

To write a review of "Adaptation" that really fits the movie, I'd have to write a review of myself writing the review. Or maybe a review of myself reviewing myself as I write my review. Or maybe .... but hey, this could get confusing. Maybe the old-fashioned way is best after all.

"Adaptation" comes from director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (see story, page 15), whose previous collaboration was "Being John Malkovich," starring John Malkovich as John Malkovich and John Cusack as a failed puppeteer who finds a secret passageway into John Malkovich's mind.

With that track record, it's not surprising that "Adaptation" is also a movie about the movies, taking an even more self-reflecting twist than the earlier picture.

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This time all the major characters are played by people other than the major characters themselves. But in other respects "Adaptation" is sort of like the mythical Ourabouros mentioned in the screenplay - the snake that eats its own tail - or like a series of mirrors repeating their images to infinity.

Nicolas Cage plays the two men - identical twins - at the center of the story. One is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, hired to adapt a true-life book into a Hollywood film.

He's having a terrible time wrestling with the assignment, stricken with writer's block and wildly uncertain whether the book can be adapted at all.

It doesn't help that his brother, Donald Kaufman, is slouching around his apartment all the time, sleeping too much and eating the food in the fridge.

It helps even less when Donald decides to get his own life together by becoming a screenwriter too, banging out a preposterous script about a serial killer who's the same person as (a) his latest victim and (b) the cop trying to crack the case.

It helps least of all when Donald's terrible screenplay is welcomed by Hollywood with open arms while poor Charlie's has barely gotten off the ground.

Also in the picture is Meryl Streep as journalist Susan Orlean, the author of the real nonfiction book Charlie is trying to adapt: "The Orchid Thief," about a man named John Laroche who's devoted much of his adult life to tracking down rare varieties of his favorite flower.

And then there's Robert McKee, the well-known proprietor of a screenwriting instruction course that Charlie holds in contempt until he realizes that Donald learned his most crowd-pleasing tricks there.

It's too early to predict whether audiences will embrace the intricate webbing of fiction and reality that "Adaptation" offers, or dismiss it as a self-absorbed cinematic plaything.

The filmmakers have certainly attracted a top-notch cast, and Cage in particular does his best work in ages, giving each of the Kaufman twins a personality and style all his own - extra challenging since Charlie is based on a real person while Donald is as fictional as anyone in a "Lord of the Rings" epic.

The ironic thing about "Adaptation" is that it's too ... well, ironic for its own good. At one point Donald tells Charlie that his "Being John Malkovich" script was really good "except for the third-act denouement," which he amusingly mispronounces.

That's an accurate critique: "Malkovich" does go downhill in its last half-hour, and when I heard that comment I figured Kaufman and Jonze had learned from their mistake and would make sure "Adaptation" stayed excellent until the end.

But it doesn't. In fact, the third-act denouement of "Adaptation" is pretty awful, bringing the main characters into a Florida swamp for a standard-issue chase and a lot of splashing around with a hungry alligator.

Since it falls back on tried-and-true Hollywood formulas, this may be the part of "Adaptation" that most pleases Saturday-night moviegoers.

It's a letdown for anyone enjoying the picture's complicated plot shenanigans, though, suggesting that Kaufman and Jonze still aren't bold (or skillful) enough to sustain their inventive ideas to suitably inventive conclusions.

If nothing else, stellar acting should guarantee an audience for "Adaptation," at least for the first couple of weekends. And it may get more momentum from the Oscar race. Cage and Streep should be front-line contenders for best-acting honors, and I was even more impressed by the brilliant supporting work of Chris Cooper as Laroche and Brian Cox as McKee, the screenwriting guru.

Maybe the Oscar show will feature the real Charlie Kaufman giving a statuette to the movie Charlie Kaufman, who'll team with his fictional brother on a script about why he didn't get one, and then....

Rated R; contains violence, sex, and drug use.

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