Adaptation chronicles the trials of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter in trouble. Kaufman has been assigned to write a big-screen adaptation of a bestselling nonfiction book about flowers—The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Inspired by the book, he wants to craft a beautiful, profound, and poetic screenplay. Instead, he sits and stares, stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is writer's block; the hard place is the movie studio, where executives ask him to spice up the script with action, violence, car chases, romance, and other clichés.

Kaufman's artistic struggle mirrors his incompetence in human relationships—especially with the opposite sex. Just as he envies other writers' artistry, he envies their intimacies as well. What looks effortless for others turns out to be well nigh impossible. He's not only struggling to adapt a book into a script; he can't adapt to the demands of the most casual conversation, much less get a good date. In the world according to Kaufman, the search for truth, beauty, and love is a maddening—probably futile—task.

The possibility of help comes to Charlie in two ways. First, his brother Donald moves in with him. Donald is a novice screenwriter who spews clichés and formulas all the way to Hollywood success. Charlie can't stand these superficial tactics. But when push comes to shove, Charlie might have to break down and embrace his brother's ways. It's all part of evolution, you see: adapting to survive in harsh conditions.

Playing these fictional twins, Nicolas Cage turns in one (two?) of his most astonishing and hilarious performances. I asked him which brother felt like a better fit for him. "On days when I was playing Donald, I was a bit more tense," he explained. "It was hard for me. ...

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