So the story goes that, after completing Miller's Crossing, the Coen brothers suddenly found themselves paralysed by writer's block. What to do? Wait for inspiration to strike? Squeeze the subconscious into burping up something? Nah. Write a movie about writer's block, stupid.
Despite (or thanks to) creative incapacitation, Barton Fink turned out as one of the Coens' most inventive efforts. Here's to an enigma repeating itself, then: faced with adapting US author Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief from page to screen, Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman endured much angst until he was cuffed by a postmodern eureka. Why not write a movie about his own persona trying to adapt the unadaptable?
Why not indeed? As played by Nicolas Cage, Charlie Kaufman is a vat of panic and self-loathing, unable to figure a way into Orlean's novel. Enter twin brother Donald (Cage again), whose fatheaded ambitions prove both distraction and blessing. Meanwhile, the book plays on, following Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her field trips with orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Fiction overlaps with fact. External flirts with internal. Eventually, the two narrative worlds collide. At points you're watching Nicolas Cage being Charlie Kaufman being Kaufman's persona in Being John Malkovich. It has all the pleasing confusion of an optical illusion.
So what's it all about? It's about whatever comes out of Charlie Kaufman's head. On the surface, it's a reflection on the artist's position in Hollywood while busting the romance of the writing process (no clattering typewriter clichés here - this is all about slacking off and avoiding the work).
That said, it also claws around fantasy, reality, duality, nature, passion and, lastly, orchid thieves. But then the same goes for the book. Orlean's bestseller fuses gonzo journalism, historical trivia and personal anecdotes. It's an amiable read and Kaufman's shrewdly nailed his source's essence, shipping that loose, jutting style into his screenplay.
This is the second time that Spike Jonze has shot a Kaufman script and you pray it's not the last. Like Being John Malkovich, Jonze grasps Kaufman's considered lunacy then relies on tonal mundanity and visual restraint to amplify the dementia. But unlike Malkovich, it's surprisingly warm to the touch.
Cage's histrionics have often bordered on self-parody but here he's mesmerising. Charlie's slouchy, interior; Donald's perky, puppy dog. Both come fully fleshed. Credit, too, to Chris Cooper as John "I wanna fuck that flower" Laroche and Meryl Streep, whose relationship with him - imagined or not - is made of a tickly, tender fibre.
Such a shame, then, that come the final third, Adaptation starts to eat itself. The symbolism takes over and, after all those careful foundations, there's a collapse. It's more infuriating than fatal, yet it's such a dizzying, unique work, you're compelled to forgive it. Genius? T-h-i-s close.