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Fans of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman have been wondering how they could possibly top their first collaboration, the deliriously surreal Being John Malkovich. Although that movie’s concerns—identity, gender, celebrity—were easy enough to perceive, what it all meant, if anything, was obscured by mind-boggling conceits and a labyrinthine structure. Malkovich, clearly, was designed to be experienced rather than interpreted.

Adaptation, Jonze and Kaufman’s long-awaited follow-up, begins on the set of their debut, a tacit admission that they know they have a tough act to follow. Happily, much of what ensues is remarkable: The pair’s new film is another ingenious, energetic, intelligent comedy. But Jonze and Kaufman eventually outsmart themselves, tacking on a cravenly contrived ending that mars an otherwise considerable achievement.

The movie’s resonant title reflects its layered themes. On a literal level, Adaptation refers to fictional scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman’s frustrating quest to transform an intransigent nonfiction book into a viable screenplay. The property in question is New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a journalistic account of botanical poaching in Florida. (Like his reel namesake, played by Nicolas Cage, the actual Kaufman once tried and failed to adapt Orlean’s book.) On a more abstract plane, Adaptation is about the Darwinian struggle for survival: the imperative to adjust to inhospitable environments (Hollywood, the Everglades) or be destroyed. To thrive, the movie asserts somewhat heavy-handedly, we must discover something to be passionate about, or resign ourselves to a swampy half-life.

Spooked by the success of Malkovich, and upset by what he regards as insufficient credit for his contribution to it, Cage’s 40-year-old Charlie is a basket case, trembling with insecurity about his talent and physical appearance, staring at a blank page in his typewriter and self-deprecatingly scrutinizing his thinning hair and thickening waist. He shrinks from the attentions of Amelia (Cara Seymour), a lovely young classical musician who fancies him, and becomes exasperated by his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), a confident, shallow doppelganger who also has screenwriting ambitions and leaves no cliche unturned in hacking out a marketable script.

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Scrambling chronology to encase flashbacks within flashbacks, Jonze and Kaufman juxtapose the story of these squabbling brothers with a pseudo-documentary account of Orlean (Meryl Streep) writing The Orchid Thief. Like Charlie, Orlean hungers for a ruling passion in her life. She discovers a raison d’etre when, in the course of researching rare wild orchids stolen from a Florida nature preserve, she encounters John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a shrewd outcast who becomes the central figure in her book. The film’s free-form structure encompasses other elements, as well: Charlie’s nightmares and masturbation fantasies, a brilliantly edited montage depicting the history of our planet and the evolution of man, and even a vignette about Charles Darwin.

Adaptation’s various plotlines converge when Charlie and Donald fly to Manhattan to meet Orlean but instead end up at a screenwriting seminar taught by bellowing, profane Tinseltown guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox). As a consequence, Charlie becomes a character in his own screenplay and the twins follow Orlean to Florida, where she has an assignation with Laroche.

Like Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, Adaptation is a movie about a man’s inability to make a movie. As such, it demands to be cast with actors sufficiently engaging to prevent the project from collapsing into narcissism. Cage, in one of his most effective performances, fulfills this requirement, creating two temperamentally opposed characters who frequently inhabit the same frame: neurotic, pretentious Charlie and vapid, guileless Donald. But Cooper overshadows him with a career-making turn as Laroche, a renegade whose ponytailed, dentally challenged good-ol’-boy facade masks a sharp mind and an anguished past. Streep is, as ever, thoroughly Streepy—which will enthrall her admirers and provide more ammunition for her detractors, in whose company I claim charter membership. Her Susan Orlean is a construction of irksome pseudo-naturalistic mannerisms—hair-fiddling, stammers, self-congratulatory smiles—that are about as convincing as a Conehead’s attempts to emulate an Earthling.

At the outset of Adaptation, the fictionalized Charlie Kaufman ambitiously but vainly struggles to translate Orlean’s book into a screenplay that eschews the Hollywood formula of sex, guns, car chases, and characters learning life lessons. And that’s precisely the kind of bracingly nonconformist movie that Jonze creates—until Charlie succumbs to McKee’s screenwriting-by-numbers advice: “Wow them in the end and you’ll have a hit.” Whereupon Charlie’s cloistered existence implausibly mutates into a sensationalistic potboiler, strewn with—you guessed it—sex, guns, car chases, and characters learning life lessons (with drug-sniffing, cyberporn, and voracious alligators thrown in for good measure) and capped by an inspirational fadeout in which the screenwriter spouts a homily about the meaning of love, accompanied by the Turtles chirping “Happy Together.”

Adaptation’s ending can be interpreted in several ways, none of them satisfying. It’s possible, but improbable, that Jonze and Kaufman are cynical enough to buy McKee’s assertion that a “wow” finale will somehow transform their convoluted, esoteric comedy into a box-office smash. (The film’s screenplay is jokingly credited to both Kaufmans, but the real Charlie has no twin brother Donald.) More likely, Adaptation’s last quarter is meant to be ironic. If that’s the case, Jonze and Kaufman’s cleverness backfires, because any viewer responsive to the main body of their intricate film will likely be put off by their resorting to brainless contrivances—no matter how much of a metacritical joke they’re intended to be.

This miscalculated conclusion deeply flaws Adaptation, but the bulk of the movie is captivating and often hilarious. One can’t deny the pleasure of exploring Jonze and Kaufman’s nest of cinematic Chinese boxes—even if the last one turns out to be filled with cheese. CP