Möbius Redux: Robert Altman’s The Player vs. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/1/03
On a recent
Omniversica radio show, indy filmmaker Josh Becker
ripped into the recent film Adaptation as an example of a screenwriter
really having no ideas & being self-indulgent. Actor/writer George Dickerson
& I agreed, but Omniversica producer Dave Wesley argued for the film’s
being something more inventive in the medium than he’s ever seen. I disagreed,
feeling that this was just some bastard blend of Post-Modernism &
Confessionalism, & that a work of art’s self-indulgence & bankruptcy
are not obviated by admitting the piece is self-indulgent & bankrupt. Add to
that that I’ve seen examples of this technique in film before (Buster
Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., & Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories
& The Purple Rose Of Cairo being just a few examples), & endless
attempts at this in various literary forms. A few days ago I watched the DVD of
Robert Altman’s The Player, a 1992 film I’d always meant to see but
never got around to seeing, & was struck by how much it had in common with
Spike Jonze’s Adaptation- although the Altman film was significantly better,
& came out a decade earlier.
This is not to say Adaptation is a really bad film, merely a good initial idea poorly executed. What I will do for the remainder of this essay is detail the plots of both films, compare commonalities & differences, & then relate the 2 films to the idea of self-awareness in art. Let me start off with the later film 1st, to explain what it attempts, how it fails, & thereby contrast the earlier film’s successes more easily.
Adaptation was a highly lauded film, critically, but nowhere near a great film. Yes, Chris Cooper won an Oscar for his turn as botanist John LaRoche, & it is a good performance until the film tanks, as well as his acting. Again, it’s no defense to claim the screenplay or director wanted deliberately bad, hammy, over-the-top acting. Anyone who’s seen CC in earlier roles in John Sayles films such as Matewan or Lone Star knows he is 1 of the best actors of our times. Adaptation is not in a league with either of those 2 performances. Anyway, here’s the basic précis of the film: The L.A. screenwriter of the film Being John Malkovich- Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage)- is having trouble adapting the next film assignment he’s been given. The book is a non-fiction best-seller called The Orchid Thief, written by a Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep)- a writer for The New Yorker- about an oddball character, who is obsessed with orchids, she was sent to profile for a magazine piece. This is CC’s LaRoche character. The book (a real book, by the way) proves difficult to adapt- for both its substance & its style. So the fictional CK character is stuck. Now, here’s the 1st twist: the real CK, who wrote the actual film, decided to create a fictional twin brother for the fictional version of himself. This character is Donald Kaufman (also played by Nicolas Cage). Here’s where the 1st problems with the film arises- & it’s not about Post-Modernism, but then the film exploits every known cliché about writers & twins. CK has writer’s block, & suffers, & is an outcast, filled with angst, & a putz around pretty women. His brother is his near exact opposite- smooth, witty, uncreative, not-too bright, yet he tries to mimic his brother by becoming a screenwriter & working on the text for a dull slasher film. CK, of course, disdains & looks down upon DK.
Of course, the rest of the film follows a pretty predictable track, even as it intercuts between the artistic dilemmas of the 2 brothers, CK’s going to a screenwriting guru (at DK’s behest), & the presumed ‘real’ tale of John LaRoche & SO’s profiling of him. Predictability sets in when CK’s artistic paralysis increases, DK’s screenplay is lauded as brilliant by CK’s agent & he gets a huge advance, then CK turns to his brother for advice on how to finish his adaptation of The Orchid Thief. DK ends up going to interview SO about the book, posing as CK- who requested it. DK suspects that SO is a liar & hiding her true feelings for JL. This is where the film really tanks- what happens next is so predictable I feel almost foolish extrapolating- but here goes: this is where DK’s ‘influence’ on the real ‘outer’ screenplay is felt. De facto- this is where the real Charlie Kaufman (not the NC version) felt he could slack off, & indulge all his worst instincts & fob off the film’s failings on the Post-Modernist crutch. Let me chart the precipitous plunge. Basically, SO & JL turn out to be drug-addled lovers who capture the spying CK (who’s followed SO to Florida with his brother to see what she’s up to). They plan to murder him & dump him in the swamps where JL went hunting orchids. DK, of course, kiboshes the plan & both twins become the hunted. DK ends up dead, along with JL, & CK heads back to L.A. for the film’s denouement, to explain lessons learned. The fictive DK is credited as co-writer & the film even ends with a memorial dedication to the dead fictive writer.
Here is where the film’s advocates declaim its brilliance- that the film is actually mocking predictability by being predictable because, of course, this was the fictional DK’s influence. That the real film does not tell us more about the interesting characters from the actual book is glossed over in favor of the real CK’s presumption of his own (or his fictive self’s) interestingness is treated as some artistic breakthrough, when it’s really an infantile throwback to the ‘art’ films of the 1960s & 1970s. The best performance in the film actually comes from perpetually underrated standout actor Brian Cox, as the screenwriting guru Robert McKee who inspires DK, then CK. There are the obligatory star cameos by actors from Being John Malkovich playing themselves- including director Spike Jonze, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, John Cusack, & the real Susan Orlean playing a woman in a grocery store.
The film did get nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, & the usual host of awards Hollywood loves to fete itself with. On the film website Rotten Tomatoes Adaptation got high scores- a 92% overall approval rating from critics & an 83% approval rating from RT’s Cream Of The Crop critics. Many critics gushed & fawned. Here’s a snippet from the review of the film by probably the most powerful film critic in the country, Roger Ebert:
is some kind of a filmmaking miracle, a film that is at one and the same time
(a) the story of a movie being made, (b) the story of orchid thievery and
criminal conspiracies, and (c) a deceptive combination of fiction and real life.
The movie has been directed by Spike Jonze, who with Charlie Kaufman as writer
made "Being John Malkovich," the best film of 1999. If you saw that
film, you will (a) know what to expect this time, and (b) be wrong in countless
[Perhaps this is more reflective of RE’s flaws as a critic rather than
my prescience as 1, BUT a) the film is (on all levels) about the failings of a
writer of a film, not the making of a film, b) nothing whatsoever about orchids
(since both the real & fictive CKs quickly dispose of that plot element)
& not conspiratorial in the least- unless the buffoonish cartools that SO
& JL turn into are taken as conspiratorial, rather than cartoons. c) I was
not fooled as to what was true, fictive, & fictively true in the least.
Neither were most of the folk I know who saw the film. Also, a) I DID know what
to expect at every step in the film, & b) I was dead-on every single time.
That, folks, is the definition of a failed script, no matter how multi-layered
it attempts to be.]
Nicolas Cage, as the twins, gets so deeply inside their opposite
characters that we can always tell them apart even though he uses no tricks of
makeup or hair. His narration creates the desperate agony of a man so smart he
understands his problems intimately, yet so neurotic he is captive to them.
[The NC portrayal of the twins is utterly predictable. The fact that they
are so polar is, in fact, a telltale sign of how un-nuanced & clichéd his
Its characters are colorful because they care so intensely; they are more
interested in their obsessions than they are in the movie, if you see what I
mean. And all the time, uncoiling beneath the surface of the film, is the
audacious surprise of the last 20 minutes, in which--well, to say the movie's
ending works on more than one level is not to imply it works on only two.
[The ending is not audacious but seen (to an astute viewer) as coming
like an Iron Horse a mile down the track. While I agree the film plays on more
than 1 level, it fails on all those levels.]
Still, there are interesting points in the film, & it is worth seeing, if only to see how ballocksed a script can truly become. 1 of the rare negative reviews of the film came from USA Today’s Mike Clark:
Yet the wrap-up, which turns so intentionally melodramatic that you "know" Donald wrote it, is irritating and indulgent: There's just no other way around it. Even at its best, Adaptation is one of the movie year's most esoteric outings — more so than even Paul Thomas Anderson's far superior Punch-drunk Love. Too smart to ignore but a little too smugly superior to like, this could be a movie that ends up slapping its target audience in the face by shooting itself in the foot.
The film’s defenders
would rail that it’s brilliant that this potentially good film intentionally
shoots itself in the foot, but I say knowing trash is worse than ignorant trash.
The New York Post’s review chimed in with this:
And there's something unsatisfying, even irritating, about its final act, which mixes contempt for Hollywood formula with Hollywoodish sentimentality, as if the filmmakers ran out of inspiration or simply lost their nerve.
The film does
try to have its cake & eat it, too. This may be the most obvious pitfall.
The same is not true of the film that preceded it by a decade, was also highly
lauded, was also an attack on the process of Hollywood filmmaking, but was so
slick about its PoMo intentions that virtually all critics missed the boat on
the fact that the bulk of the film is a tale that probably never happened, but
was the thought-out ‘pitch’ idea by a screenwriter to the main character- a
Hollywood film exec. Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player is not a great film-
as many claimed, but it is better than Adaptation- on virtually all levels. It
also is 1 of the rare films that garnered a Rotten Tomatoes 100% rating across
the board from all of its critic & its Cream Of The Crop.
The film opens with a famed 9+ minute opening single crane shot that swoops in & out of assorted conversations between assorted people on the lot. A duo even mentions Orson Welles’ famed single crane opening shot of Touch Of Evil. After several sweeps in & out we focus on studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) who has just received the latest in a series of postcard threats from some hack writer whose film idea he never got back to the writer on. He also feels threatened by a younger hotshot the studio head just hired as a possible replacement for himself- Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Like Adaptation’s fictive Charlie Kaufman GM is a man at a crux & crisis point in his life. He has a sweet, sincere girlfriend, Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson), & seems resigned to his possible ouster from his job. But, the threats unnerve him & begin to change him in to a darker person than the usual Hollywood asshole type that both he & LL represent. Many cameo guest stars comment on both GN’s & LL’s two-facedness in business. But GM’s personal life is what is the center of the film. He comes to the conclusion that the rejected writer-cum-stalker is a nasty hack writer named David Kahane (played with gusto by Vincent D’Onofrio). GM calls up DK’s home but, instead, speaks to his girlfriend, the off-center painter June Gudmundsdöttir (Gretta Scacchi). He voyeuristically peers in her window while on his cell phone, & becomes erotically obsessed with her. She tells him her boyfriend went to a local art theater to see The Bicycle Thief. GM follows him there & cravenly attempts to purchase peace with DK by offering him a chance to write a script for an upcoming film. DK seems to be the stalker. He’s rude, arrogant, & even physically attacks GM. When GM fights back he accidentally kills DK in his rage. Panicked, he covers his tracks by making it appear DK was killed during a robbery.
Now, here is where 1 of the 1st bones of contention comes in. In the original novel of the same name, by Michael Tolkin (who adapted it for the screenplay), GM is an unrepentant murderer. In the film it is clear that any jury would have found GM guilty of, at worst, manslaughter or justifiable homicide, or even innocent on grounds of self-defense. The film makes the mistake of trying to have the audience believe GM is a murderer when we’ve seen with our own eyes he is clearly not. He ends up obsessing over JG, is rebuked by the studio’s head of security, followed by a pair of unconvincing cops (Lyle Lovett & Whoopi Goldberg), & finds out that DK was not the stalker. The real stalker is still alive & mortally threatening him. But, now GM really cannot go to the cops because that would supply the motive for why he would have tracked DK down in the 1st place. Before then he had not reported the threats to the studio security or the cops because he feared for his job.
The audience is left with the odd fact that GM’s own insecurities are what lead him to becoming a far more rotten character than at the film’s start. But his descent leads him to success. He bests his rival Larry Levy at the studio, ends up the studio head after the film he thought would sink LL ends up a smash, is exonerated of the murder charge because a dimwitted old lady picks the Lyle Lovett cop character out of a lineup- not GM, ends up marrying DK’s oblivious girlfriend, sees his ex-girlfriend Bonnie tossed out by the studio after sticking to her ethical guns, & in a very PoMo end gets a call from Larry Levy on his car phone with a story pitch idea- its from the writer/stalker who pitches him the very premise of the film we’ve just seen: ‘It's a Hollywood story, Griff. A real thriller. It's about a shitbag producer, studio exec, who murders a writer he thinks is harassing him. The problem is he kills the wrong writer. Now he's got to deal with blackmail as well as the cops. But here's the switch: the son of a bitch, he gets away with it.’ GM asks him if he can guarantee a happy ending- if he can he’s got a deal. The writer does & all ends well. Now, here’s the ultra-PoMo part of the ending no other critic of the film picked up on. Most thought the ending was about irony, but it actually tells the audience that the film we just saw probably never really occurred- it was all the momentary internal musings of GM- extended to a 2+ hour film in his head- as he is pitched the tale. How can we take the film this way? Well, logically, since in the bulk of the film the studio security head is pissed at GM for not coming to him with the threats in the 1st place, & then aiding GM to beat the rap, there’s no way- even if GM ascended to studio head status, that the studio would greenlight a film that recaps their recent P.R. disaster. In fact, Larry Levy would not dare to pitch such an obvious roman a clef to his boss who just went through the exact same thing. We are then left with the notion that not only is the bulk of The Player a total fiction within a fiction (housing its even more internalized fiction of the film within the film- Habeas Corpus), but that there is an extra level of The Player, that recognizes this & references the film we’ve just seen when GM comments that he likes the stalker’s (who’s not really a stalker since it was all just a pitch) title for the proposed film- The Player. Again, as with the notion that GM is a murderer, this may not gibe film to source novel very well- but I’ve not read the novel & do not care. Similarly I do not care that the protagonist of the novel American Psycho is supposed to truly be a murder, because in the film American Psycho he clearly is not- he only imagines or fantasizes that he is. In the film The Player, a studio exec is pitched an idea for a film called The Player, which he lives in a few seconds in his mind, ending with what we find out is a pitch after all- & in the film within a film- which most mistakenly take to be the most exterior fiction GM is clearly not a murderer- at most a manslaughterer. Still- the end of the most exterior film of The Player is a 180° turn from the end of the most interior film- Habeas Corpus. There every cliché is mined, as that is apparently what test audiences wanted (not unlike several high profile films’ endings also being changed in real-life Hollywood). The ‘happy’ ending in the most exterior film is 1 where crassness is rewarded- or so we think, if we take the interior The Player as real. Regardless, the ending is 1 that the fictive David Kahane might have penned- & loved!
The fact that no critics (or at least no critics I could find) commented on this attests to how very successful the film was in its Möbian antics. Unlike Adaptation it did not tell us (over & over) it was Möbian, it showed us. Similarly it used inside jokes & references throughout the film: as mentioned earlier, it references the record time for a tracking shot to open a movie- Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil- then breaks it; talks of eliminating writers from the filmic process after GM has killed DK; has Larry Levy join AA- only because that’s where the best deals are made; the studio lawyer Dick Mellon’s (Sidney Pollack) constantly bungling facts about guests to a party of his, revealing his utter disdain for the people who’ve made him rich; has an actor who was a main character from a film- D.O.A.- asked if he remembers ever watching the film the film, & ends both Habeas Corpus & the exterior The Player with the same line- used in totally different circumstances: ‘Traffic was a bitch.’
The only real flaws that keep the film of The Player (the most exterior 1- the 1 the audience actually watches) from being a great film are those most mundane 1s that hamper most films- the movie could have been trimmed by 15 minutes or so, cutting alot of persiflage; & some of the performances were weak- like studio head Joel Levison (Brion James), & the bizarre & poor duo of Whoopi Goldberg (Susan Avery) & Lyle Lovett (DeLongpre) as detectives. Still, it’s a very good film, as evidenced by the fact that unlike alot of Hollywood films that take on the industry it never shows any film being shot, actors screen testing, directors barking out orders, or scenes being filmed (unlike Adaptation). This is about pitches & negotiations. This fact is probably due in large part to the fact that Robert Altman, for all his kudos, is most at home as a director-for-hire, as he was on The Player. Like a Philip Kaufman, he is no visionary auteur- just a very skilled craftsman. 50 years ago he’d have been the a consummate studio director- 1 that the studio prided itself on- adding a final irony to the tale of The Player- that the title references the director himself. The film is also well-known for its abundant cameos: Steve Allen, Harry Belafonte, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, James Coburn, Peter Falk, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould, Jack Lemmon, Malcolm McDowell, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Bruce Willis, & Julia Roberts, among the few dozen or so.
In The Player the satire is played far closer to the vest. In Adaptation all the clichés are thrown at us early, & then the film gives in to even worse 1s. In short, both films are Post-Modernly aware of themselves, but Adaptation is FAR more self-conscious & needs to remind its audience at least once every 3 minutes of this fact. The Player drops its bread crumbs rather stealthfully- so much so that few have ever picked up that it is far more devious than its later rival. It also succeeds more on the more banal aspects of filmmaking- narrative, character development, & pure fun. Part of this is probably due to the fact that Spike Jonze comes from the advertising world, & is only on his 2nd film, whereas Robert Altman was already a veteran of 5 decades in the business when he made The Player. It shows, because RA would never have let his screenwriter run so amok with a script, when- as is often the case- less is far more. The Player is a much better film than Adaptation; so much so that I will state that both the interior & exterior films of The Player are better than Adaptation. At this fact Donald Kaufman is probably doing pirouettes in his plot- or just plain plotzing!
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