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« YNMS: Mary Queen of Scots | Main | The Furniture: Theatrical Magic in "Fanny and Alexander" »
Thursday
Jul122018

Months of Meryl: Adaptation. (2002)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

#28 — Susan Orlean, a New Yorker writer drawn to the eccentric orchid poacher she is profiling.

JOHN: “Why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers?” asks perspiring screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) to film executive Tilda Swinton from across a table at a posh Hollywood restaurant. “I don’t want to cram in sex or car chases or guns.” One could imagine that Meryl Streep, who has resolutely avoided nudity, drugs, and violence throughout her career, has contemplated this same question. As Susan Orlean, Streep’s outwardly demure and professional demeanor is irreversibly shaken by the oddly captivating John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a Florida orchid hunter, nursery owner, and part-time porn site operator. To watch Streep, at age 53, fire guns, appear nude (read: blatantly Photoshopped) on Laroche’s site, straddle him, and, most incredibly, snort an orchid-based narcotic, getting high and humming along to a phone dial tone, is to experience a dizzying yet satisfying whiplash.

These images shock not because Streep is so decisively stepping off her pedestal but because she performs these increasingly absurd scenarios with such fresh and cheeky conviction. And while Susan Orlean’s late-film breakdown posits a wholly untapped channel of Streep’s talent, there is an underlying sadness and heartache that is equally compelling from start to finish, revealing a midlife crisis in which one woman’s seemingly fulfilling life completely falls to pieces. In a career full of startling transformations, and within a film whose very subject are the acts of adapting and evolving, Adaptation. remains Streep’s most singular and surprising performance.

Susan Orlean is a New Yorker writer on assignment in southern Florida following up on a bonkers news item about a white man, John Laroche, and several Native Americans caught stealing rare flowers from the Fakahatchee State Preserves. With her hair pulled back, tinted sunglasses, and notepad dutifully in hand, she slinks into the courtroom at Laroche’s trial, first surveying this outrageous character at a distance. She meets him outside and asks if he would be interested in being the subject of a profile. This proves to be equally advantageous: he can use her magazine’s esteem to satisfy his imploded ego while she lands a human interest goldmine. Laroche rambles on about orchids, turtles, fossils, tropical fish, and Darwinism, among other topics, cursing indiscriminately and hitting every bump on the road while Susan marvels at his “delusions of grandeur” and absence of front teeth. She later visits Laroche’s nursery, where Vinson, one of John’s Native American workers, comments on her beautiful hair. “Oh, thank you… I washed it this morning, so… I’m using a new conditioner…" she says, taken aback. “I can see your sadness,” he replies, “It’s lovely.” Streep’s expression is alarmed by both the confrontational nature of this man’s comment and the possibility that this stranger has unearthed a quality heretofore concealed. As Vinston susses out the sorrow in Susan’s life, her reserved but seemingly satisfied journalist begins to wonder if her life will ever allow for a passion as consuming and exciting as Laroche’s floral obsession. Why don’t you continue with Ms. Orlean at her dinner party?

MATTHEW:  When is the last time you can remember a female character arc in a major mainstream motion picture that was defined not by a journey of self-discovery but a sense of retreat or regression rather than progress? And when is the last time you can remember this arc enacted by one of the most universally acclaimed actresses of the 20th century, who is now well into the age range when just about all of her peers start popping up as Haughty Grand-Dams and Eccentric Aunts, as opposed to soul-searching, drug-addicted, and giddily libidinous journalists? This character description speaks to the genius of Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman’s nervy conception of Adaptation.’s Susan Orlean yet it’s also what makes the actual casting of Meryl Streep such a radical proposition. Streep, who called Kaufman’s script “the best [she] has ever read,” has certainly played women on the edge before, but we have seldom seen her inhabit a character increasingly inclined to detonate her entire way of life from the inside.

We hear Streep’s Susan Orlean before we fully see her, recounting, in voiceover, her introduction into the volatile world of John Laroche. Her voice is soothing but also somewhat depersonalized, like that of a veteran audiobook narrator on her sixth chapter of the day; when we finally encounter her head-on, she appears so peaceful in front of her laptop, a vision of equanimous beauty. But this is an illusion, one of the last instances in which we’ll witness Susan Orlean at peace. And this is because the Susan Orlean that Streep, Kaufman, and director Spike Jonze have envisioned in almost alchemic tandem is a human embodiment of the profoundly personal costs of maintaining one’s mask in all areas of life.

This is never better exemplified than in an early scene in which Susan and her husband (played by Streep’s The River Wild director Curtis Hanson) entertain a group of their nearest and most distinguished friends (including Vogue’s Lisa Love, the psychologist Wendy Mogel, and director David O. Russell) with stories of Laroche’s idiosyncratic personality traits and unbecoming physical features, told with eager dismissiveness. Susan is a game participant amid this circle of ridicule, but when she retires to the bathroom, something changes. As her husband continues the story in her absence and their guests continue to roar with laughter in the other room, Susan’s giggling dies out and the smile drains from Streep’s face. She looks at herself in the mirror and raises a nervous hand to her mouth, eyes staring back at each other with shame before quickly darting away, as though Susan is really seeing herself for the first time and recoiling from the image before her. The moment is brief but it unlocks the entire performance that follows, gradually revealing the inchoate sadness buried beneath the chipper, people-appeasing reflexes of a person who had, up until this moment, never questioned the meaning of her life?

But what exactly has spurred Susan’s spark of awareness? Could it be her participation in this petty conversation, which has lessened Laroche, a man only growing in her admiration and fascination, to a quirky crank? Or is it that this conversation so easily continues without her, the story she ventured out to find told by a man with only a secondhand connection to its events, thus casting aside her own involvement and diminishing her very ownership of the story. Can Susan’s profession, her passion, be reduced to the act of locating human interest stories for the cruel and fleeting amusement of limousine liberals? Rather than alight on any of these explanations, Streep embraces the thrilling irresolution of open-ended possibility, not seeking answers so much as dwelling in this moment of recognition. When we next see her, sitting at dinner and then lying in bed beside the husband who is somehow so far away from her, Susan quietly vibrates with the revelation that she has been playing a role for longer than she can remember, and that the life she leads is lonelier and more unfulfilled than she had ever thought possible. But what begins as a possible search for clarity only becomes a deeper, more desperate form of delusion. Why don’t you take us through the next stages of Susan’s descent, which carries her away from the upper stories of Manhattan and into the muddy, impenetrable swamps of Laroche’s heart?

JOHN:  You’re right in noting that Susan Orlean’s almost willful disintegration is an extremely unusual character trait for an actress at Streep’s age, and for actresses of all ages in Hollywood. It’s a role, when considered outside the film’s style, that recalls the ecstatic theatrical plunges of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. But even more so, Streep’s Susan Orlean is also a radically dissimilar biopic performance from perhaps our preeminent biopic actress. Susan is a decidedly ordinary woman, sans accent or period costume, and her very presence on screen is a testament to the filmmakers’ gonzo imagination rather than some factual representation of the very real writer named Susan Orlean. Freed from “getting it right” and playing a comparatively lesser-known figure, Streep’s hybrid performance combines the uninhibited naturalism of the “real” Orlean and the inspired creative leaps the script requires of this fictionalized counterpart.

Streep’s triumph in the film’s first, more “realistic” half is the palpable sadness Susan reveals through her curiosity with Laroche. While her husband is away on business, Streep rings Laroche in bed to “get some more information” for her article, but she quickly finds herself becoming more candid with this near-stranger, admitting that if her husband almost killed her in a car crash, she would leave her marriage, as Laroche and his wife did: “It’s like a free pass. No one can judge you if you almost died.” Susan requests that John guide her on a tour of the Fakahatchee, enthralled by his obsession and secretly hoping that some of his passion will rub off on her. What begins as a promising and exciting adventure to see the ghost orchid quickly becomes an unfulfilling trek through a humid swamp where Laroche gets them both lost. As Laroche tries to fashion a sundial in the shaded marsh out of twig and mud, Streep must negotiate her irritation with the dashed hopes of coming into contact with Laroche’s elusive flower and the uneasy realization that Laroche might have duped her into a crisis; is this guy profound, or is he just nuts? Waist-deep in the Fakahatchee, Streep looks up into the trees, hoping for some answer, for some clarification, in this increasingly bizarre trip. As Orlean, Streep reads from her book, “Life seemed to be filled with things that were just like the ghost orchid — wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with but a little fantastic and fleeting and out of reach,” a snippet of hard-earned wisdom made all the more moving after watching Orlean discover it first-hand.

Susan Orlean is experiencing the kind of existential crisis that would inevitably lead someone to snort an exotic plant. Another duplicity: Laroche wanted to harvest the ghost orchid to manufacture a secret Seminole drug, a pursuit possibly outside the realm of his proclaimed passion for botany. Streep, game as ever, approaches this development with both skepticism and fascination. Laroche delivers an envelope of the green powder to her hotel room. What follows is an absolute master class in onscreen doping: Streep is both extremely precise and refreshingly loopy as she snorts the powdered-orchid-stem. While brushing her teeth in her bathroom, Streep, waiting for the effect while watching herself brush, suddenly stops, reverses the circular motion, and looks downright confused that such a product actually worked. Streep has rarely been as uninhibited as she is during Susan’s dazed state, trying to hum along to the exact tune of a dial tone and cradling her foot in her arms. “I’m very happy right now, Johnny. I’m very happy,” she tells Cooper while laying across her bed, looking absolutely radiant and cherubic while also relating a convincing high. There’s a coy, playful flirtiness to the way Streep speaks to Cooper, almost like a teenage girl summoning the courage to make the first move on her crush. Her high is infectious; can you think of another instance of Streep being so blissfully zonked-out, this playful, or this loose on screen?

MATTHEW:  I cannot, and that’s a testament to the rarity of Streep’s task in Adaptation., as well as to the incomparable brilliance of the master herself. She gives Kaufman and Jonze’s slyness a total sincerity of feeling, matching their ingenuity with her own creativity, beat for beat. True, Streep has seldom been asked to immerse herself in the internalized psychedelia that Susan undergoes in the film’s third act. But the buoyant, loose-limbed jubilancy that Streep emits while cackling and writhing around a hotel bed in the midst of Susan’s intoxication feels like a revelation, not only because you’d have to go back more than a decade to Postcards from the Edge to find Streep at the center of a realistic comedy, but because the actress herself has hardly ever let herself lose control in the eyes of her filmgoing public.

In the performance that precedes this scene, Streep blurs the divide between Susan’s crafted persona and the moments in which she is possibly just being herself, whoever that may be. She projects the stillness of a subject in a painting, occupying a state of watchful curiosity while continually capturing varied states of emotion and then embodying their essences with a purposeful composure that loses its cool control as Susan grows ever more despairing. I love that you brought up that mid-movie confessional, in which Susan tells Laroche that she would use a near-death experience as an excuse to exit her marriage, not only because it’s a prime example of Streep making the character’s delirious epiphanies matter with her casual conviction, but because it’s one of the first instances in which we can clearly glimpse the Susan Orlean that Adaptation. will end on: the impetuous and irresponsible free spirit who is far less free than she will soon realize. Susan does more than ditch her reserve, but rather free falls recklessly into utter abandon, opting for the hallucinatory, time-stopping recesses that come with Laroche’s company. Jonze and former cinematographer-of-choice Lance Acord shoot these scenes of Susan’s short-lived seclusion with a sun-kissed luster that Streep basks and beams in, exuding girlish glee as she lies on her belly in the grass, mindlessly admiring the shiny ants on a leaf.

It’s only when Charlie and Donald intrude upon Susan’s secret side life with John that the dark disgrace of her actions comes into focus. Confused by the presence of this hapless screenwriter whose knowledge of her indiscretions might lead to her downfall, Susan untangles like a ball of yarn, her words, her worries, trickling out like thoughts running from the brain and her eyes bulging, resembling the stare of a child caught red-handed in some act of wrongdoing. At times, Jonze tries to emulate the cornucopia of sheer invention that is Kaufman’s screenplay with a frenetic application of style that he ditches only when Streep occupies his frames. As a paranoid and inebriated Susan decides what to do with Charlie, Jonze settles his camera completely on Streep, whose face floods the screen, working through the process of decision-making with a reserve that is tremendously transfixing and eradicates the need for any filmmaking tricks. Twenty years after Sophie’s Choice and twenty-five years after her big screen debut, Streep knows she need only move her nervous brows, her restless eyes, or her quivering mouth in just the slightest manner to court our gaze and keep us wondering insatiably.

When Susan ultimately decides on murdering Charlie, Adaptation. briefly casts Streep as a cold-blooded, would-be killer, a role that fascinates because it’s one we’d never expect to see the actress placed in. But what’s most indelible about our last glimpses at Susan Orlean is the bottomless well of misery that Streep unearths in her concluding scene, sharing a look of defeat with Laroche from across the swamp in which he will, in just a matter of seconds, lose his life, and then, finally, howling with rage at Charlie as she cradles Laroche’s lifeless body in her arms, whimpering, “I want to be a baby again, I want to be new,” with a pitiable mournfulness for a life that can never be restored. Susan has at long last reached a stage in her regression that cannot be cut across, and I will never forget the sobs of dawning loss that slacken the entire body of one of our mightiest acting legends, who has never looked so broken or so lost.

John and I both frequently bemoan Streep’s seeming disinterest in pursuing collaborators as adventurous and risk-inclined as Jonze and Kaufman. I still feel that way, but, in truth, Streep’s performance in Adaptation. scales the type of sublime heights that we witness only once or twice, if at all, in the careers of most performers. It remains an inspired and still staggering pairing of character and interpreter, and the type of challenge seldom afforded to actresses in the latter stages of their stardom. Susan Orlean could have easily been a neurotic, erudite New York sophisticate with a clear-cut sense of discontentment, but Streep aims for the ineffable and achieves it in scene after scene. This is a feat deeply fitting for a performance characterized by a yearning for something indescribable and, finally, the unbearable agony that such impossible desires can allow to devour us whole. Streep’s wide eyes and slack jaw reflect our own reaction, which is the all-consuming wonder of watching a creation we could never have possibly envisioned yet is now suddenly present, walking, talking, and unraveling before us.

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Reader Comments (27)

I remember loving this movie at the time. I have to watch it again :-)

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatagonia

You know what. I remember being 'meh' about Meryl in this movie. I'll have to give it another shot. Can't wait for The Hours!

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

Adaptation is one of my favorite movies of the modern era. Possibly the best movie of its decade. Streep, after her Globe win in the press room told everyone this was the easiest of her two performances that year. But, also the one she did not have complete control of because Kaufman required her to say his dialogue precisely for a reason.

In an alternate universe Weaver and Murphy would be playing these roles. And God she could have used the possibility of an overdue win in supporting then. Weaver not Streep for clarity's sake.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Chris Cooper's win as Best Supporting Actor for "Adaptation" is one of my favourite wins ever.

You have Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage (in his heyday) strutting around, being Great Actors, and congratulating themselves on their Performance.

Then Chris Cooper comes on, and is so vivid, alive, real, and captivating, that he just makes you laugh in surprised appreciation and delight.

It's a wonderful vindication that a terrific character actor, when given the opportunity, can blow the headliners away with ease.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I go with evengelina. I must give that Film another shot, cause in that Year I find her more worthy in "The Hours". But I only see "Adaption" one time and for me the best was Chris Cooper, who stole the whole show. Sadly Ed Harris dont have a chance for winning for his terrific turn in "The Hours" as the dying writer.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

Oddly I've only seen this film once. It was a good movie but pretty easily my least favorite in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman canon. Maybe I should give it another shot through 16-year older lenses.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I went to this film with my nephew, who was seeing Meryl Streep for the first time. We both enjoyed this movie, and I think Streep's performance is so wonderful.
I will always love her line reading of, "we have to murder him".
I just found this film so much fun, and it's very different from what I expected.
That's what makes it so good.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I just did not get this movie when I first saw it at the theater. It made no sense. The ending was like an episode of Mannix, and not in a good way. I think i need to watch this one again.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Streep is devastatingly great and funny here - and yes, better than Zeta-Jones.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I also credit this film and nomination with Streep’s resurgence among young people it familiar with her earlier work.
I absolutely believe this should have been her third Oscar.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I'm not wild about the film - but Cooper is super and I'd be inclined to put this in Streep's top 5, maybe top 3, performances. It's so unexpected, and works perfectly. For a few years this was often the performance I first thought of when I thought of her.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Yes gr8 perforamnce and in depth write up interesting to think of Weaver in the role,was she 1st choice.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I remember loving Streep in this. I always like her in comedic roles.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Thought for sure Streep would win Oscar for this performance. She did win Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild for 'Adaptation'.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I remember how delightful that Globes acceptance speech!

SAG made it interesting that year by putting CZJ in the Lead category (who lost to her own co-star, Renee Zellweger).

I haven't seen this film, so I can only remember that post-Being John Malkovich, it was a big thing to be in the next Jonze/Kaufman movie and this time around, you KNEW it would be weird. I give Streep major credit for joining in.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Waiting.... for the film to be on Criterion....

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Streep , great in Adaptation , won the Golden Globo , and wasn' t nominated for the SAG ( What ??)
Zeta -Jones lost the Golden Globe , in the category of Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy , to her co-star Zellweger, then won the SAG, Bafta and Oscar for Best actress in a suporting role .

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErick Loggia

I really recommend this movie, because it has it all. Great adaptive writing by Charlie Kaufman of Suan Orlean's novel (which is great on its own), great direction by Spike Jonze, and great performances by the entire cast. It was one of the first "meta" movies of its time, and for Streep, a fresh departure that helped to extend her career into its fourth decade and connected her with new audiences. I equally admire that Chris Cooper, Nicolas Cage and Brian Cox did a bang up job, and Cooper's Oscar was well deserved. A+

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

This is such a great movie and it really holds up. Streep especially..top 5 performance for me. Best 3 Streep scenes in it:

3. "I want to be new again!"

2. The dial tone

1. Orlean and Laroche at the flower conference, where he delicately explains how every blossom has one perfect match, and all the evolutionary heartache it takes to find that match.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

This should have been her third Oscar instead of Iron Lady.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

The Months of Meryl series has been a great ride... elucidating, confronting, and detailed, but to this point it has characterised Streep as the Ice Queen of literary adaptations. For that reason I’ve been waiting for this episode to see how self-aware the writers are. Here, surely, was their chance to celebrate their Ice Queen’s self-immolation in a screenplay so replete with meta references that only she could or should have played this Susan Orlean. But, John and Matthew, you missed the greatest opportunity for self deprecation that you’ll get on this trip. Your literary Ice Queen rose stronger from her own ashes in this same year when she also played Clarissa Vaughan, the literary Ice Queen incarnate, in yet another literary ***adaptation***. She was having fun and taking risks everywhere. Hollywood and the Academy had no idea how to handle this 50-something siren who also returned to live theatre in her two-year hiatus from onscreen roles. Streep’s acceptance speech for the Golden Globe award is a favourite of mine. It had been so long since she’d been anything but a smiling face in a nomination list, and during her shocked speech she unconsciously completely messed up her hair to match her unpredictable career moves. For those of us who’d been real-time Streep fans since the 1970s, this was a triumphant moment, the affirmation that she was greater than Hepburn, that our faith was well-placed, and that the best was yet to come.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

@/3rtful shut up... if you dislike Streep so much, don't read the articles... as simple as that.

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Loved Streep and the film but I do vividly remember a pic of Michelle Pfeiffer on a wall in the background of a scene!

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLowey

@Lowey:

This was Pfeiffer’s White Oleander snub year. And Patricia Clarkson in Far From Heaven. Imagine if the Supporting Actress lineup had been:

Streep, Adaptation
Zeta-Jones, Chicago
Clarkson, Far From Heaven
Pfeiffer, White Oleander
Bates, About Schmidt

Best of all time?!?

July 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Gd as she is.. Isn't Streep more o a co-lead in Adaption?

Had she campaigned under comedy/musical actress, who u tink wld've won best supp actress at GG? Kathy Bates?

Had she n Zeta-Jones swopped category, i tink the latter will win the GG too..

July 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Paranoid Aranoid - replace Zeta-Jones and Bates with Miranda Richardson for Spider and Toni Collette for About a Boy and you have yourself a list.

July 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

This film is in my alltime great movie top 10.
I love everything about it. The acting, the plot, the crazyness of life itself.
I'd loved to seen it sweeping the Oscars that year, including best film, best director, best screenplay and all the acting categories.
I really love The Hours, but it's not Sophie's Choice that I prefer Adaptation over it any day.

July 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

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