DIRECTED by Spike Jonze
STARRING Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Opens February 28, Cert 15, 120 mins
Provocative, ambitious and radically original, this latest cinematic headfuck from Being John Malkovich creators Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman is a wild ride?it’s scathing Hollywood satire, mind-boggling meta-fiction, and a fiendishly clever reflection on the perils of adapting someone else’s work all rolled into one breathless and confounding experience. It’s already been hailed as some kind of film-making miracle in the States, and now it’s your turn to fall for its bewildering brilliance and kooky, chaotic charm.
OK. From the top. We find screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Cage) mooching around the set of Being John Malkovich. Kaufman is a mess, a bundle of neuroses and anxieties. He’s struggling with his next job?adapting The Orchid Thief, a biography of orchid obsessive John Laroche (Cooper) by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean (Streep). The book’s penetrating, meditative?”great, sprawling New Yorker stuff”. Charlie loves it. But it lacks the structure, character arcs and dramatic tension that constitute conventional cinematic staples. “I don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing… I don’t want to cram in sex, car chases or guns,” he explains to his producer.
Charlie’s problems are compounded by his twin brother Donald (Cage again). Donald is Charlie’s polar opposite?laid back, uncomplicated, confident, he’s even seeing a make-up assistant from Being John Malkovich who Charlie’s been unable to work up the courage to ask on a date. To make matters even worse, Donald’s recently taken a screenwriting course and has begun to churn out precisely the kind of trashy, Hollywood potboilers Charlie despises. And as Charlie’s writer’s block grows deeper, Donald’s script (“It’s Psycho meets Silence Of The Lambs”) gets hailed by Charlie’s agent as “the best spec I’ve read all year”. Ouch.
Added to this is the fact that Charlie, who’s already fallen for Orlean’s prose, is gradually becoming obsessed with the author herself, to the extent where he spies on her and follows her down to Florida for a meeting with Laroche.
At which point everything goes seven shades of weird. But we’ll come back to that later.
Let’s work out what’s real first. The facts are that, yes, a New Yorker journalist called Susan Orlean did write a book called The Orchid Thief, based on the life of John Laroche. Yes, it’s true that Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt it for the big screen. Yes, it’s true that Charlie subsequently developed writer’s block, at which point he hit on the idea of putting himself into the screenplay to try and work it out of his system. Anything else?even down to the existence of bro Donald?is the work of Charlie’s imagination. The film becomes a story about creating a story, meta-fiction taken to an extraordinary level. And Kaufman’s ingenuity knows no bounds; his script dazzles. He balances the ‘real’ sequences with Orlean and Laroche perfectly against the crazy outpourings of his imagination and, finally, brilliantly merges fact with fiction to create the kind of third act pay-off that’s audacious and inspired, a scathing satire on Hollywood at its most wretched.
But this isn’t smug, post-ironic posturing. Just as you cared about the characters in Being John Malkovich (particularly the plight of big John himself) so you feel for Charlie as he seethes, struggles and rages. Cage is remarkable here as the brothers Kaufman?this is a return to the quirky, kooky performances he gave in Raising Arizona or Moonstruck, before big budgets and banality set in. Streep and Cooper provide the film’s emotional core in the sequences adapted from The Orchid Thief?Streep turns in her best performance for years, her initial quiet composure giving way to something deeper and more primal, while Cooper burns up the screen as the unpredictable, near-psychotic Laroche. There are fine cameos, too, from Brian Cox, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton?plus blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em turns from Malkovich, John Cusack and Catherine Keener, which only seem to blur the lines between fact and fiction further. Hell, you’ll love it all.
A unique piece of cinema. The orchid stays in the picture.