The theme of writer's block is given an exhaustive workout in Adaptation, the new quirkfest from the Being John Malkovich team of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. Screenwriter Kaufman (in the person of Nicolas Cage), faced with the daunting prospect of adapting the acclaimed book The Orchid Thief by author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), puts himself through literal hell. Endless rewrites and conceptual shifts occur, while he simultaneously endeavors to live his resolutely neurotic, joylessly masturbatory life. He winds up writing both himself and Orlean into the script, as they encounter the book's titular thief, wacky John Laroche (Chris Cooper). The fact that his twin brother, Donald (Cage again), has shown up to live with him, and is himself writing the schlockiest script imaginable, doesn't help matters. Nor does Charlie's eternal lack of success with the ladies, who include too-platonic Amelia (Cara Seymour), a sleek, Tina Brown-ish producer (Tilda Swinton), and a perky waitress (Judy Greer).

Adaptation is a critics' darling, as evidenced by its ecstatic reviews, but it is so inside that one wonders what its appeal will be to the average moviegoer. References to Being John Malkovich, the Hollywood game of pitch-and-sell, and the famous screenwriting class of guru Robert McKee (a puckish Brian Cox) may evoke sighs of delighted recognition from a specific group, but why should anyone else really care? It opens with a near-genius, waffling interior monologue of self-hatred by Charlie (at which Cage excels like no other) and is never less than droll, offering many knowing chuckles along the way. But--in a desperate last measure--Charlie makes the mistake of trying to have it both ways and turns his project into a violent genre piece by the end. When you see the high-minded Orlean, deep in Florida orchid country (read swamps), getting high and dirty with Laroche, and aiming to kill the Kaufmans, you're thrown completely out of whack. The film loses its featherweight, amiably silly quality, and becomes more thuddingly absurd. One's willing suspension of belief is sorely tried and the delicate balance of artifice that has kept the movie humming along rather collapses.

Benefiting from astonishing trick photography, Cage does some truly compelling, funny acting and has amazing chemistry with himself. The Kaufmans are split representations of what the actor comically does best: slightly abrasive Valley Boy egomaniac (Charlie) and sweetly infuriating, clueless dolt (Donald). So subtly adept is he that, for the very first time in a twin film that this viewer can recall, you really believe these are two different people yakking at each other. ("Don't say 'pitch,'" superior Charlie admonishes the oblivious wannabe writer, Donald, in an exchange that brilliantly encapsulates sibling tension.) Streep is less exciting: Although her famous technique is fully in evidence, Orlean has--perhaps out of a screenwriter's respectful tentativeness--been sketched so vaguely that there's not much the actress can do with her, except suggest a certain enigma which would explain her appearing topless on a raunchy website and turning homicidal, drugged-out nympho by the end. Despite a toothless grin and balls-out manner, Cooper never quite gets the proper charismatic-dangerous grasp on Laroche. The other characters are vividly drawn, like an updated Preston Sturges stock company, but none makes as strong an impression as Greer. In a simple, yet excruciatingly painful, would-be courtship scene, she and Cage achieve a spontaneous, beautifully tentative rhythm that is the most unexpectedly funny (and moving) scene in the film.

-David Noh