Adaptation (2002)

Last night my wife made some kind of sarcastic comment — a not unusual occurrence around our home — and I responded with, “Oh, honey, irony is so 2001.” After two or three seconds of silence we both laughed.

The problems of irony, particularly when of the postmodern bent, are on mind-numbing display in Adaptation, a film that collapses under its own self-referential weight so many times that, at some point — and I think it was right about the time that Meryl Streep started humping Chris Cooper — I stopped watching the film and began waiting for it to end. Which is a shame because there are moments in it that are quite good, especially those few scenes when we get to listen to Susan Orlean’s beautiful prose in voice over. If we are to believe anything in the script — a big if, I realize — we can assume that it was that prose that inspired Charlie Kaufman to begin his adaptation in the first place. Or maybe it was the beauty, that most mysterious and troublesome of encounters for the postmodern ironist. I feel about Adaptation like I did the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There a little over a year ago: I’d be much more willing to accept their cynicism if they hadn’t given me glimpses of something more.

But as the Coens, Kaufman, and Spike Jonze would surely tell me, “That is precisely our point, man.” (Well, I don’t know if they’d add the “man,” but most apologists for these films probably would.) There’s even a nice little bit in Adaptation when Donald Kaufman tells his brother that he’s decided to add to his screenplay a “snake eating its own tail.” “Ouroboros,” Charlie tells him. “He’s called Ouroboros, and that’s me.” Get it? Kaufman (the real Kaufman) has covered all the bases, predicted and undercut our arguments, sealed off any avenue of epistemological escape. And you know what? I just don’t care.

Adaptation may have felt fresh to me if it had been released thirty-five years ago, or if I had never watched a Godard film or read The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and seen the adaptation, also starring Streep), or if I were oblivious to Sam Shepard, whose True West casts a formidable shadow here. But it’s not fresh and, aside from several amazing performances, it’s not even that interesting. I can’t decide if that opinion leaves me resigned to the realm of the unhip or if I’ve somehow transcended the unhip and circled back around to hip again. But, again, who really cares?

On a side note, before Adaptation I was subjected to the trailer for Bruce Willis’s next film, Tears of the Sun. Based on this trailer alone, I’m going to pray that this film not only fails miserably at the box office, but that it takes down the careers of everyone involved, too. Imagine a jingoistic and imperialist version of Rambo. (See? There remains the proper time and place for effective irony.)