There's trifold significance to the title of "Adaptation," the second marvelous meta-comedy from the team that brought us "Being John Malkovich." The word can denote the translation of a book into a film. It can mean the metamorphosis exhibited by flowers and other natural specimens. Most important, it's what human beings have to do to survive.
All three concepts bedevil Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a rising but self-loathing screenwriter hired to extract a screenplay from author Susan Orlean's nonfiction best seller "The Orchid Thief." Faced with the punishing task of adapting a book that has no traditional conflict or resolution, Kaufman endures a series of false starts and dead ends that pummel his already fragile ego. Bereft of inspiration, he begins to sexually obsess over Orlean (Meryl Streep), who he knows only through her jacket photo. Meanwhile, Charlie's twin brother, an affable dimwit named Donald (Cage again), is following his sibling into the writing game by penning a preposterous thriller about a serial killer with multiple-personality disorder. Donald's aesthetic cluelessness is matched only by his boundless enthusiasm. He's everything Charlie isn't.
Interlaced with these events is a flashback story that shows how Orlean came to write The Orchid Thief: by befriending John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a hilariously rude horticultural outlaw bent on "liberating" rare orchids from protected Florida lands. Their unexpected comradeship shatters taboos and widens their respective horizons -- just the sort of breakthrough that's eluding Charlie back in the present.
Streep and Cooper provide the support structure for two fine performances by Cage, which is two more than most pictures can claim. But the real star of the movie is its premise, which plays a metaphysical shell game with elements from our world. Orlean and her book are real. So is Laroche. Charlie Kaufman is real: He wrote "Malkovich," which we occasionally see being filmed. Donald, as far as anyone knows, is a fabrication (though "Adaptation's" screenplay is winkingly credited to "Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman").
Self-indulgent? Only when it counts. Teamed for the second time with Kaufman (the real one), director Spike Jonze wisely adopts a more straightforward style. The sole visual pranks are a skillful but brief recap of the evolution of life on Earth, and the clever integration of the two Cages. (We're a long way from the days of Patty Duke and the humble split screen.) Otherwise, Jonze refrains from showing his hand. He knows that this is Charlie's story. Literally.
Once the movie slyly states its intention to haul out every deus ex machina in the book, we find ourselves moving toward a denouement (or as Donald pronounces it, "de-NOO-ee-mont") that's sadly linear/literal. Kaufman hasn't yet learned to see one of his oddball fantasias through to its (il)logical conclusion. But in terms of emotional payoff, "Adaptation" trumps "Malkovich," which ultimately took a dim view of the human potential for self-knowledge. The new film cultivates a sunnier outlook. If you don't like who you are, it argues, you reach inside and find the capacity to change. You adapt.