Film Reviews


By • Jan 13th, 2003 •

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Columbia Pictures / 111 minutes

Sean Penn, you owe Nicholas Cage an apology.

Listen up, millions of aspiring screenwriters! You know how hard it is to actually get an agent? Then get your screenplay read, no less made? Now consider this: You beat the astonishing odds and your quirky screenplay becomes a movie, John Malkovich is in it, a darling and daring young director with fantastic connections directs, and critics love it! Now here’s the lousy part: Starlets don’t want to be seen with you, you live in a house without furniture, and you are not lionized. You have to pay for stuff.

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of the wondrously hailed BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze, the director of BEING JOHN marries Sofia Coppola while Kaufman was allowed on the set a few times), is given the lucky job writing the screenplay for a famous nonfiction book, THE ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean. It’s about flowers. It’s not about the flowers anybody can buy at WalMarts. Orchids are highly temperamental and demand a great deal of special attention. They are expensive. There’s a lot of misting and fussing. Kaufman gets writer’s block and, with another pitch already sold to Jim Carrey (I’m really feeling sorry for the guy now), decides to put himself, Susan Orlean, and a twin brother named Donald in his screenplay. It’s going to be about the journey writing the screenplay.

This would be vainglorious; however, Kaufman is a fabulous, dangerously subversive, highly original writer. The movie starts off with Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) telling us how fat and ugly he is. Before we see him, he tells us he’s repulsive. He sweats in meetings. To underscore his complete lack of social grace and sexual charm, he further attempts to alienate the audience by masturbating several times throughout the movie. I don’t think the term “self-hating” is strong enough. This could be the most self-indulgent suicide note ever written (except, of course, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are anxiously waiting for their Charlie Kaufman screenplay.)

There are several stories going on. One is the story of Charlie and his twin brother Donald. Both are overweight and unattractive, but Donald is optimistic and happy-go-lucky. He may be unemployed and staying in his brother’s spare bedroom, but he’s self-assured. He shamelessly flirts with girls, hooks up with BEING JOHN’s makeup artist, and he hangs out with actress Catherine Keener. He decides to write a screenplay as well. He’s taken a screenwriting seminar by the famous Robert McKee (Brian Cox). Donald knows all the movie clich├ęs and wants to incorporate all of them in his screenplay. Charlie is appalled and begs Donald not to use words like “pitch” and “structure,” while telling us he can’t find the “character arc” in flowers. Meanwhile, everybody in the movie keeps telling Charlie he’s a genius.

The other story is about how THE ORCHID THIEF came about. New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) goes to Florida to interview orchid collector John Laroche (Chris Cooper). He’s missing his front teeth and has the awful hair men with no front teeth have. He’s nothing like Orlean’s sophisticated New York friends and husband. But he’s got an enormous, erotic pull for Orlean: He’s filled with tremendous passion. He’s a serial zealot. And right now, Laroche has passion for orchids. Orlean decides to turn her article into a book. The book’s success brings Hollywood interest.

The two stories collide when Orlean’s book is optioned. Kaufman is hired to write the screenplay. But where is the story? How are movie audiences going to sit still for a movie without a murder, car crash, or car chase?

Nicolas Cage plays both roles brilliantly, and bravely. This is really an impressive, unselfconscious performance. Mr. Penn, if this isn’t an actor acting, what in the world is? Kaufman is fat, hairy, and going bald. He’s oppressively insecure and brutally honest. The blending of the dual characters on screen is seamless art. The role of John Laroche could make Chris Cooper a sex symbol – finally. Streep is a marvel, reminding us that women over 35 can be sexy. Brian Cox plays McKee with a delightful, explosive arrogance (but with a redeeming kindness!) – too bad McKee’s people wouldn’t allow me an interview when he gave his weekend screenwriting seminar at UNLV in Las Vegas in October. Let’s hope Charlie’s Hollywood agent Marty (Ron Livingston) was merely a clever caricature. (I expect there’s an agent whose friends are weeping with laughter.)

Charlie/Donald Kaufman: Nicolas Cage
Susan Orlean: Meryl Streep
John Laroche: Chris Cooper
Valerie: Tilda Swinton
Amelia: Cara Seymour
Robert McKee: Brian Cox
Caroline: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Marty: Ron Livingston

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Based on the book “The Orchid Thief” by: Susan Orlean
Producers: Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay, Jonathan Demme
Executive producers: Charlie Kaufman, Peter Saraf
Director of photography: Lance Acord
Production designer: KK Barrett
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Casey Storm
Editor: Eric Zumbrunnen

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