Almost Famous

Almost Famous (2000)

Dir. Cameron Crowe

Written by: Cameron Crowe

Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand


I was introduced to Almost Famous at exactly the perfect time in my life. I was a sophomore in high school when the girl who would go on to be one of my first serious girlfriends showed me this movie for the first time. It must have been 2001 or early 2002 when we watched this on DVD in the basement of my parents’ house. We made out through a lot of the movie so my memories of that first viewing are fond, if incomplete. We were 16 years old and Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 70’s rock and his own adolescence seemed awfully relatable at the time. Based on Crowe’s real life touring with groups like The Allman Brothers and The Who while he was a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous seemed like it had been made specifically for me. I played in several bands with friends throughout middle school and high school, none of which ever got off the ground or lasted much longer than six months. Almost Famous was just the sort of rock and roll fantasy that a teenage music nerd such as myself would fall in love with.

Crowe’s stand in in the film is William Miller (Fugit), a 15 year old aspiring rock journalist living in San Diego with his over protective mother (McDormand). Early in the film, William meets his idol Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a brief, but great cameo) who gives him his first opportunity to write for a real rock magazine, covering a Black Sabbath show. When William can’t get into the venue despite his press credentials, he meets Penny Lane (Hudson) a groupie who sneaks him backstage, and introduces him to the band Stillwater. After conning his way into covering up-and-coming band Stillwater for Rolling Stone, William hits the road along with Penny and the band. While on tour, he falls in love, witnesses the interpersonal conflicts of a band that he admires, and experiences the excesses of the 1970s rock scene.


The thing that Almost Famous does so wonderfully is establish a sense of place and time. The film’s soundtrack is crammed with 70s rock classics. The costumes and set dressing are period appropriate. However, the 1970s that Almost Famous evokes is a fun-house mirror reflection where the freaks and the burnouts are kings. The crowded hotel lobbies that William must navigate on tour are full of rock stars and their hangers on, all ready to follow their favorite group to the next tour stop, hoping to delay the onset of reality for just a few more shows. As a journalist, William’s role is to document the bacchanal but, like the audience, he can’t help but find himself wrapped up in it. Like the film itself, the world of the tour is immersive, and many of the film’s characters are happy never to leave it, following one band, then another, never wanting to return home.

The realism of Almost Famous is also bolstered by its deep and talented cast. Crowe has said that nearly everyone in the film is based on a real person that he knew in the 70s rock scene, and it shows. Even characters with just a few scenes are memorable, and fully fleshed out. I already mentioned the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cameo as Lester Bangs, but in just about ten minutes of screen time, Hoffman turns in one of his best performances as the “uncool” rock critic who William so admires. Hoffman’s performance shows the chain smoking, mustachioed Bangs in turns manic and enthusiastic about rock and roll, and cynical about it, forecasting its death. Hoffman elevates what could have been a bit part into one of the more memorable elements of the film thanks to his nuanced, subtle performance. Performances like this abound in Almost Famous. Frances McDormand stands out as Elaine Miller, William’s mother, even though most of her scenes are phone conversations. Often without anyone else on screen to play off of, the concern and anxiety that her character is feeling are palpable. Crowe inserts a few shots of McDormand sitting alone after her phone conversations with William that are simply heartbreaking. The mother character could have been shrewish, or used mostly for comic relief, as is sometimes the case in the film, but the emotion that McDormand puts into her performance made me take notice of her character in particular on this rewatch.


The film’s main cast is also deserving of commendation, particularly Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe, respectively. They play the guitarist and lead singer of Sweetwater, whose creativity and frequent personal clashes fuel the band. Crudup plays Hammond as equal parts con man, mystic, and rock god. He takes William under his wing during the tour, but steadfastly refuses to give him an interview for his story. As the film goes on, Russell and William develop a friendly rivalry over their mutual admiration of Penny Lane. Lee’s Jeff Bebe describes himself to Hammond as, “the you they get when they can’t get you,” underlining the tensions between the two as Jeff chafes at his second banana role to Russell. Both actors turn up their lothario charm for their roles, but they play the rockers in different ways. As mentioned, Crudup plays Russell as some sort of mystic, tapped in to a spiritual connection with the music that he makes so much that he can’t relate to average people. He can go from charming warmth to drug-fueled rage at a coin flip, and Crudup is convincing in both modes. Lee, on the other hand, plays Bebe as an affable, if bristly, uncle to William. He keeps the journalist at arm’s length, referring to him as “the enemy,” but is ultimately far more forthcoming than the seemingly more affectionate Hammond. As the group’s lead singer, Bebe’s personality is more outwardly engaging, and Lee’s upbeat performance style is perfect for that.

It’s unfortunate, but understandable, that the teen actors cast in the film’s leads don’t quite live up to the high bar set by their older counterparts. Patrick Fugit is passable as William, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of acting for him to do. On the surface, his character learns and grows quite a bit from the beginning of the film to the end, but his performance rarely reflects this. Fugit does a fine job of embodying William’s starry-eyed demeanor at getting to spend time among his idols, but when the film asks him to ramp up the emotion and get angry, he falls short. His line delivery is stilted and he doesn’t have the physical presence in the role to carry the emotional weight that the script sometimes asks of him. This may be a result of both the character and the actor being a teen interacting with adults, so they are both ultimately unable to convey a full adult range of emotion. It’s not that Fugit is bad in the film, he just often seems overmatched when paired with the more charismatic Lee and Crudup.


Kate Hudson fares much better as Penny Lane, the famed groupie and founder of the “Band Aides.” While William is taking in this world for the first time, Penny is a season veteran, and Hudson, who grew up in a famous family, lends the character a world-weariness that feels earned. Hudson plays Penny Lane with supreme confidence throughout the first half of the film. She adopts a matronly position among the other Band Aides and William, and acts a sort of tour guide for the audience. Her youth belies her experience, and she exudes authority. However, by the end of the tour, Penny Lane and her Band Aides are left behind by the band, and the cracks in Penny’s confident façade start to show. Hudson’s last few scenes in the film are impressive, as she lets just a bit of Penny’s sad brokenness shine through those cracks. The scene where William finally tells Penny that she isn’t going on the rest of the tour with Stillwater because Russell sold her, along with the rest of the Band Aides, to Humble Pie for $50 and a case of beer is a perfect example of Hudson’s performance range in the film. She turns her head away from the camera, obviously hurt, and then turns it back to look at William, wiping away a single tear and quietly asks, “What kind of beer?” as a smile starts to bloom on her lips. Penny’s heart is breaking and that single tear contains a lifetime of sadness, but it’s all the vulnerability she can allow herself. Penny Lane could have been a concept, or a cliché, rather than a fully realized character. In fact, most of the men who claim to be in love with Penny throughout the film only know her as a cliché and are in love with the concept of Penny. It’s in these small scenes shared with William that Hudson’s performance lends Penny a well of emotional depth.

As is probably abundantly clear by now, I really enjoy Almost Famous. I went through a big Cameron Crowe phase during high school, and Almost Famous was among my favorites of his at the time. As I mentioned, it spoke to the teenage music nerd in me. Despite all of his obvious flaws, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, although I would have settled for being William Miller. Penny’s bohemianism and easy charm reminded me of my girlfriend at the time. She was an actress, and she was prone to the same sort of poetic daydreaming that Penny was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had asked me to go to Morocco with her, as Penny does with William. Almost Famous caters to that teenage impulsiveness, the feeling that if you can join the circus or a rock and roll band, you might never have to grow up. Of course, somewhere along the way I did grow up. I’m not sure that I have watched this, or any other Cameron Crowe film, since turning 25.


About three months ago, however, I purchased the extended cut of Almost Famous on Bluray. It was on sale an Amazon, and I was curious to see if the movie would hold up to my fond memories of it from adolescence. I was honestly surprised by how well it did, in fact, hold up. I may enjoy Almost Famous more now than I did then. Watching the film as an adult, I was less caught up in the romance and the spectacle of it all. I keyed in on the small performances, like Frances McDormand’s or Jimmy Fallon’s fantastic cameo as the band’s potential new manager. I appreciated the depth that underlies all of the showier aspects of the film. When I was young, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, but now I know that I was far more destined to be Lester Bangs. My role is to be the critic, feeding off of the art of the true creatives, and hoping that maybe my own prose will help someone to find their way to a new favorite film or rediscover an old one. Working on this project has made me much more comfortable in that role, one that I had a lot of trouble accepting and growing into as a younger writer. Brushing off old favorites like this one is a lot like trying on a favorite band T-shirt from your youth. It might not fit exactly the same way, because you’ve changed, but there’s still something familiar and comfortable about it because of all the memories you’ve made wearing it. I’m really beginning to enjoy digging through that old dresser.


Alien (1979)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Written by: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm

Imagine being in one of the first audiences to experience Alien when it was released in 1979. The film’s opening credit sequence cues that this is going to be a different sort of space adventure. The only sound on the soundtrack at the opening of the film are low strings, mimicking wind howling in the vacuum of space, as the letters of the film’s title slowly begin to reveal themselves. The word “alien” not only refers to the monster that will soon be unleashed on the crew of the Nostromo, but also to the fact that this film must have been fairly alien to the sensibilities of a viewer in 1979. It isn’t that Alien is without filmic precedent. Some of its DNA can be traced back to 1951’s The Thing From Another World, and it also borrows heavily from the newly established slasher genre, particularly sharing a tonal similarity to John Carpenter’s Halloween, released just six months prior to Alien. It’s the way that Ridley Scott combines these disparate influences to create one of the first true sci-fi/horror hybrids that makes Alien such a unique experience, and a seminal classic in both genres.

From the start, Alien takes its time, lulling the audience into a false sense of security as it spends the first half hour of its runtime detailing the fairly mundane activities of the crew of the Nostromo who have been awakened early from their hyper sleep to investigate a signal of unknown origin. Instead of forcing the pace early in the film, Scott lets the film’s set design build up a sense of foreboding in the audience, particularly after the Nostromo touches down on the alien planet and the crew begins to explore the ancient alien ship. The sheer size of the ship and its strange biomechanical construction, where the walls seem to ooze and breathe, seemingly aware of the presence of the exploring crew members, is inherently unsettling. The film’s opening half is a master work in building and releasing tension, using tone and pace to create nearly unbearable suspense that is paid off with some famously gory scenes later in the film.


One of these gory scenes, featuring the film’s famous chest-bursting alien, is the only thing I can remember from my first time ever watching Alien. I went to a friend’s birthday party in elementary school and we were going to watch monster movies all night, so his parents had rented us an assortment of classics, including Alien. I don’t actually remember watching the rest of the film, but the scene where the alien bursts out of Kane’s (John Hurt) chest was forever etched into my mind after that night. I had already seen Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, so I knew what was coming from the parody, but I still wasn’t prepared for the visceral intensity of the scene. By today’s standards, the scene is actually fairly tame, but my ten-year-old mind was not ready for something so shocking and violent, and I imagine that I don’t remember anything else about the rest of the movie because I actually checked out shortly after seeing Kane’s ribcage explode as the infant xenomorph is born.

Since that initial introduction to the world of Alien, I have seen the original many, many times and have also seen all of its sequels and related spin offs. Up until this rewatch, I likely would have said that my favorite of the series is Aliens, the James Cameron directed sequel that expands on the original film’s mythology, introducing new characters and cementing Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) role as the franchise’s central hero, and as one of the most important heroines in all of film history. The sequel jettisons the original’s horror elements in favor of a faster paced, more dialogue heavy, run and gun action film. It opens up the mythology, firmly cementing the Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the real evil of the series, as it remains insistent on bringing a xenomorph to Earth for study and potential weaponization, despite Ripley’s vehement protests. Simply put, Aliens is bigger, more bombastic, and, often, more fun than its predecessor. However, after watching both films in the same afternoon for the first time in years as I prepared to write this post, I have to come down in favor of the original. Aliens is a great film, and unquestionably one of the best sequels of all time. I wouldn’t question anyone who told me that they preferred it to Alien, as I once did, but for right now, I just find the original film to be more fully realized and interesting on the whole.

I think the biggest reason for my new preference for Alien over Aliens is the former film’s deliberateness, in its construction and its pacing. The slower pace and extended introduction of Alien allows for more discovery, whether in the film’s early tracking shots that explore the Nostromo before her crew awakens in their pods, or the aforementioned highlighting of the set design on the alien planet and in the alien ship. Alien is a film that wants its construction to be noticeable and appreciated, and through highlighting that construction Scott and Giger’s effects team create a fully realized world, which raises the stakes on the terror that is unleashed in the second half of the film. The slower pace of Alien also allows the audience to get to know the characters a little better than the characters of Aliens. I care a lot more about the intergalactic truckers who crew the Nostromo than I do about the space marines who populate the sequel.


One thing that I really enjoy about both of these films, though, is their class sensibility. In both films, the heroes are simply working class people who are doing a job, particularly so in Alien. My favorite character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto) because he voices the crew’s class concerns. He has one of the first lines in the film, and he uses it to express his dislike for the inequity in the bonus structure for the crew. He and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the ship’s mechanics, have to split a share while the rest of the crew each gets full shares. Parker is also the one who reminds the rest of the crew that the Nostromo is not a search and rescue ship when their mission directives are changed to investigate the mysterious distress signal. Parker just wants to do his job, get back to Earth, and get paid. This class consciousness extends to the presence of Weyland-Yutani Corporation as the series’ overarching villain. The corporation’s desire to obtain a xenomorph for study trumps all other concerns, including the safety of the films’ protagonists who are often corporation employees, throughout the series. This positioning of corporate interests or meddling corporate scientists as evil is not uncommon in the sci-fi genre, but it makes for a nice subplot in the Alien films.

Whatever genre you decide to classify it in, whether sci-fi or horror, Alien is undoubtedly near the top of the pile. It launched an iconic franchise of films with variable results. Its influence extends beyond these direct sequels to dozens of sci-fi and horror films that have come since, but none have been able to top the original for innovation and sheer terror. Alien is a timeless classic for that reason. When talking about the history of films, you can’t ignore the xenomorph in the room.


Alexander (2004)

Dir. Oliver Stone

Written by: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis

Starring: Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto


I have owned the DVD of Oliver Stone’s Alexander director’s cut for over ten years. In that time, I have viewed it exactly once, shortly after purchasing it in the spring of 2006 at the Blockbuster on Forbes Avenue during a sale shortly before the store closed. While rewatching Alexander for this project, I was reminded of the reasons that I had never bothered to go back to it after that initial viewing. The film is simply a mess. It doesn’t work on any level. It is too dull and tedious to work as an action film, too shallow to work as a historical drama, and too conventional to work as the art film that Stone badly wants it to be. While Alexander is certainly beautiful to look at, its interminable length and poor acting make it a misery to sit through.


Alexander is a swords and sandals epic that traces the life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) from birth to death, focusing largely on his conquest of much of the known world in his 20s and 30s. Alexander’s life is related to a scribe by an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and the film proceeds as a fairly typical Oliver Stone biopic. In fact, I was reminded of Stone’s Nixon at times while I was watching Alexander. The subjects of both films are men who are convinced of the greatness of their own destinies, obsessed with obtaining power, and who are ultimately consumed and brought down by their desire for power. Where Nixon succeeds and Alexander fails, however, is in making its subject a relatable and even, at times, sympathetic character. Perhaps by necessity of its setting in Greek antiquity, rather than feeling like the story of a real historical figure, Alexander feels like mythmaking. While there’s nothing wrong with mythologizing a historical figure, that mythmaking both robs Alexander of his relatability as a human character, and is at odds with Farrell’s angsty, dead-serious portrayal of Alexander the Great.

It isn’t just Farrell who turns in a lacking performance, unfortunately. Alexander must feature one of the most squandered assemblages of talent ever in a single film. Hopkins is largely reduced to the role of a voice-over narrator, appearing in only a handful of brief scenes, in which he does little besides dictate his voice-over narration to an on-screen scribe. Angelina Jolie, as Alexander’s mother Olympias, is an Oedipal seductress who is given little to do on screen besides pout and smolder. Her role as a major influencer on Alexander’s life and as a central schemer in the machinations that lead to the death of King Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander’s father, seem unearned. Similarly, Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto are both underused, as Alexander’s wife and (not so) secret lover, respectively. In fact, the only performance in the film that stood out to me was that of Kilmer as King Philip. Kilmer gained 50 pounds for the role, and he lets his physicality do the heavy lifting for him in the performance. It stands in stark contrast to Farrell’s verbose, manic Alexander and Jolie’s subdued Olympias.


Despite its many flaws, there are some things to like about Alexander. As I mentioned, the film is often breathtakingly beautiful. If the film’s casting budget largely feels wasted, its special effects and filming budget do not. Stone’s recreation of ancient Greece and Babylon is beautiful, and it really works. The sets and costuming are detailed and beautiful to look at, and they go a long way to lending it credence as a history. The large scale battles that are featured in the film, especially Alexander’s first victory, are excellently shot, blending overhead shots of mass troop formation with close-up shots of visceral hand-to-hand combat.  The film’s real world locations are also beautifully filmed, with the final battle in India standing out in particular. The lush greens of the Indian jungle stand out richly in contrast to the film’s existing color palette which is dominated by reds and golds. It’s a shame that Stone can’t reign in some of his more experimental tendencies during that final battle, opting to color shift the film halfway through the scene, because it takes away from a set piece that is working, visually, and serves as a reminder of the self-indulgence that the whole film is suffering from.

Upon its release in late 2004, Alexander was panned critically and bombed spectacularly at the domestic box office, returning just under $35 million against a $155 million dollar budget. International box office receipts would make the film a very modest financial success, and the film would go on to have great success in the home video market, with four separate cuts of the film being released by 2013. I have only seen the 2005 director’s cut of the film, but I can only imagine that the two later cuts (the “Final Cut” and the “Ultimate Cut”) would be even more interminable than the 2005 version, as they are both nearly four hours long. Ultimately, these additional cuts of the film are indicative of the extreme self-indulgence that hamstrings Alexander in general. Stone falls in love with his own story, and too often opts to tell rather than show. As a result, its action set pieces, while enjoyable, are too few and far between, causing the film to feel like a historical reenactment. However, the film is unsuccessful in that regard as well, because even after spending nearly three hours with the subject, I didn’t feel that I came away with any larger understanding of who Alexander the Great really was as a person. The personal details that could have fleshed out Alexander, making him a well-rounded protagonist, and making for a more interesting and successful film in general, are largely glossed over or left to insinuation.


It’s a shame that Alexander doesn’t make for a better film, because the building blocks are there for something more entertaining and engaging. With a little more editorial oversight, Alexander could have been an effective historical action film; with better casting and a more personal (though probably less historically accurate) treatment of its subject, it could have been an interesting biopic of one of ancient history’s most important figures. Without either of those things, the end result is a bloated historical epic that is often content to meander from one life event to the next, failing to provide a more personal context for Alexander. Apparently, the “Final Cut,” released in 2007, attempts to rectify some of these shortcomings and includes a great deal of footage examining Alexander’s sexuality and his relationship with Hephaistion (Leto), as well as his relationship with both of his parents. Unfortunately, I have only seen the director’s cut, and don’t have the patience to sit through Alexander another time to find out if Stone’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too by extending the film’s runtime by nearly an hour is worth it.


Adaptation. (2002)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Charlie Kaufman & Donald Kaufman (from the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper


Charlie Kaufman is, hands down, my favorite screenwriter. He’s also one of the few working screenwriters who has developed into a true auteur, almost immediately establishing his singular, idiosyncratic voice in his first few feature scripts. Being John Malkovich announced the arrival of both Kaufman and director Spike Jonze as major level talents, but it was their second artistic pairing, Adaptation., that revealed the depths of Kaufman’s narrative dexterity. Adaptation. was also the film that introduced me to Kaufman’s cerebral brand of storytelling, and hooked me on his neurotic genius.

Famously born out of Kaufman’s real life writer’s block while attempting to adapt the Susan Orlean novel The Orchid Thief, Adaptation. is, instead, a journey into the writer’s head, exploring the process of adaptation and writing itself as Kaufman inserts himself into his own screenplay. The Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) of Adaptation. is a caricature of the real life Charlie Kaufman, highlighting the screenwriter’s awkwardness and insecurity as he struggles to find an entry point into his film adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Cage also plays Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald, who is also working on a screenplay, and who serves as a foil for the fictional Charlie. The film’s narrative is highly complex, layering the story of Kaufman’s writer’s block with scenes from the novel, which depict New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) meeting, and subsequent obsession with, orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Cooper). By the film’s end, Kaufman has crafted an ouroboros of a story, self-referential to the point of collapsing in on itself in a final act that is both intentionally clichéd and artificial, and also genuinely cathartic.


As I mentioned earlier, Adaptation. was the film that really introduced me to Charlie Kaufman. I had seen Being John Malkovich on Comedy Central sometime prior to having seen Adaptation., but it was the latter film that made a real impression on me. I picked it up on DVD (used from Blockbuster, as was my wont in those days) sometime in 2003 during my senior year of high school. I hadn’t seen the film in theaters, but I remembered reading a review in Newsweek magazine that detailed Adaptation’s creative genesis and my interest was piqued. What I experienced when I finally got my hands on a copy of Adaptation. did not disappoint and turned me into a lifelong devotee of the work of Charlie Kaufman.

I had seen plenty of movies that trod in waters of self-reference and that highlighted aspects of their own creation or artificiality, but none quite like this one. Adaptation. was a deep dive into the entire creative process. I had never before seen a film that put its stitches and seams so on display. I don’t remember my first viewing specifically, but I know that the first few times I watched the film, I still couldn’t quite put all the pieces together. The narrative jumps forward and backward in time, layering and stitching together the threads of its story, mixing together real people and fictional characters, all being presented in a highly self-conscious filmic representation. Adaptation. simultaneously draws the viewer in to witness its characters’ most vulnerable moments, while keeping them at a distance through a veil of artificiality. It’s complex, high-minded filmmaking, and it can be a lot to take in.


With all of the high concept ins and outs of its screenplay, it would be easy for Adaptation. to veer off into the territory of navel gazing, or simply to fall apart under the weight of its own ideas. The thing that makes the film so successful is that it is so rooted in genuine human emotion. The performances of its three leads and Jonze’s warm treatment of their flawed, sometimes unlikable characters, keep the film emotionally resonant. Cage is great, and shows a fairly dynamic range in portraying both the neurotic, misanthropic intellectual, Charlie, and the brash, dopey populist, Donald. Donald so obviously looks up to Charlie, attending screenwriting seminars in an attempt to impress his famous brother. Charlie is embarrassed both by and for his twin’s earnestness. Though they spend the bulk of the film fighting and bickering, in fact much of the film’s humor is derived from Donald’s role as a mirror image to Charlie, the twins are there for each other by the end of the film. The love/hate relationship between the twins is the emotional heart of the film, and its final payoff is devastating. As Donald lies, dying, in the middle of the road, he and Charlie share a moment of true pathos. Charlie cradles his dying twin’s head and sings “Happy Together,” an ongoing motif in the film, in an attempt to keep him from heading in to the light.

Streep and Cooper are both excellent, as well, with Cooper winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Laroche the orchid poacher. He’s responsible for one of the film’s funniest lines. When describing the fleeting nature of his myriad interests throughout life, and in particular his decision to stop collection tropical fish, he says, “…One day I say fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish.” Laroche’s finality is reflective of the film’s emotional message that love and happiness can be fleeting, so when you find some of either, enjoy it while it lasts and learn to let it go when it’s gone. Over the course of the film, we see Susan Orlean learn this, as she grows more and more enamored with Laroche. Early in her research for The Orchid Thief, we see Orlean drawn in by Laroche’s charisma, and his dogged pursuit of the ghost orchid, which she becomes obsessed with seeing. Pursuing the ghost orchid and Laroche is a metaphor for Orlean chasing her own moment of happiness and adventure, outside of her loveless marriage and stable New York City academic lifestyle. By the film’s end, she’s found that both the orchid and Laroche’s charm were illusory, and she is left, like Charlie, cradling the dead body of a man she loved.


As I mentioned earlier, the film’s denouement is intentionally artificial and contrived. The brothers Kaufman follow Orlean to Florida where they discover she and Laroche’s secret stash of drugs, derived from the orchids that he grows in his nursery. When the twins are found out, Laroche and Orlean chase them into the swamps of the Everglades, intending to kill them to cover up the secret of the drugs and of their affair. Through a series of increasingly unlikely and violent twists, Donald and Laroche end up dead, while Orlean and Charlie are left in the swamp trying to pick up the pieces. In the hands of a less capable filmmaker, this narrative left turn could potentially unravel the whole film, and would certainly read as wholly unrealistic. However, Jonze directs the scenes masterfully, creating tension out of a patently absurd situation, and also wringing deep pathos out of both Donald’s death and Orlean’s realization that she is, in Charlie’s words, an “old, lonely, desperate, drug addict.” Even after watching her hunt Charlie and Donald through the swamp, it’s impossible not to feel some pity for Orlean, after having seen how empty the rest of her life is outside of the hunt for the ghost orchid. Jonze chooses to hold the camera on Orlean as she keeps Laroche’s bloody body from sinking into the swamp, letting the audience pick up her realization that everything she’d hung her hopes on was a lie.

I think this blend of the cerebral and the emotional makes Adaptation. Kaufman’s most fully realized work. It probably isn’t my favorite movie that he’s written, but it is likely his best. The script is Kaufman’s most complex, but the emotional resonance of Jonze and the spectacular cast give it a core for the wacky, high concept ideas to revolve around. Both in the film and in the script, Kaufman and his on-screen counterpart break all of the rules of screenwriting in their attempts to capture the essence of The Orchid Thief. While he may never truly unravel the mysteries of the novel, the Charlie Kaufman of the film does learn a profound lesson by the end. By the film’s close, Charlie has gained some perspective and is ready to finish up his screenplay. In a way, the screenplay has been his ghost orchid all along.


It’s a wonder that a film as bursting at the seams with concepts as Adaptation. can wrap up so neatly, but the final shot is simple and perfect and it never fails to make me smile. With Charlie driving off to put the finishing touches on his screenplay, the camera lingers on a planter full of black-eyed susans as “Happy Together” by the Turtles fades in on the soundtrack. Gradually, the cars in the background begin to speed up as day turns to night in what is now a time lapse shot. The flowers close and then open as the Sun rises again, and the cars continue to speed by in the background. Something about those flowers opening and closing in the sped up time lapse, striving to get closer to the light, has always felt like a perfect ending to this film. It symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth, the hope that each new day can bring. Adaptation. is a near perfect film, one of the best of the 21st century so far, and I love watching it every time I pull it off the shelf.