“Fat, bald, repulsive, old…” are not words we at Cage Wisdom would associate with Nicolas Cage, but throughout Adaptation these derogatives are spewed from Cage’s mouth, about himself! We’d beggar believe it! Looking oddly like Gene Wilder, Cage plays Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of Adaptation) narrating his own faults incessantly, cataloguing his failures and obsessing over his appearance. Neither Cage nor Kaufman are actually fat, Cage sports a slight paunch in this film, but only seems to be using the same bulky body we see in his action films, but holding it differently, with his stomach not his shoulders. It is his face that is most markedly different in Adaptation, but it is not his face that we start the film upon. Instead we hear his voice over the opening credits, narrating his physical inadequacy before the actor even arrives on screen. Cage plays twin brothers, Charlie Kaufman, and the fictional Donald Kaufman. Charlie is tense, sweating, holding his eyebrows like Woody Allen, while in Donald there is perhaps an echo of Cage’s character in Raising Arizona, a slightly goofy wide-eyed performance, of a man at ease with his own slacker geniality. Cage animates their faces differently. While acting as Charlie he furrows his brow like he so often does, but with neuroses rather than resolve. By contrast as Donald his face looks softer, doughier, more relaxed.
It is hard to say exactly how good looking Cage is. While in Ghost Rider the camera lingers on his bright blue eyes and taut muscles, in Adaptation the camera is cruelly positioned above his head to expose his receding hair-line. Baggy clothed and baggy faced, with streaming pores of sweat, Cage looks like more of a Chris Ware caricature than the real Kaufman… although playing Donald allows Cage to show his winning smile, that wins Maggie Gyllenhaal into his bed and into our hearts. His performance of both men is so impressive that it is worthy of laudation while simultaneously leaving a reviewer with little to say apart from the fact that Cage proves he is a fine classical actor, when required. For less worthy films he allows himself more lee-way to experiment with stylised tics and mannerisms.
Due to the fact that the film concerns Kaufman’s failed, real-life attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to screen, Cage spends much of the film dramatising prevarication and false starts. He is thus pretty restricted for much of the films in the movements he is able to act out – pacing, brooding, sitting, sweating, masturbating, sweating masturbating. Though cut aways to segments from The Orchid Thief and the life of its author help to sustain interest, it is a credit to Cage that he makes even the most mundane procratimasturbations fascinating through his tethered intensity.
It is rare for Cage to play a role as low-status as the one of Charlie Brown name-a-like and impersonator Charlie Kaufman. He is normally the man. Here he is a man. And a pretty rubbish one at that, writing chops aside. Yet, Cage makes the character more appealing that the similar author-insertion protagonist of Kaufman’s later Synecdoche, New York (2008) played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and surely more so than if the original actor considered, boring Tom (the Ham) Hanks had played him. Hoffman’s an blind-sidingly good actor, but what a role like Kaufman’s needs is not a character actor, but an actor like Cage who can channel the charm of his persona into a part some viewers might find unappealing.