How Great Is Charlie Kauffman

With Confessions and Adaptation out, is he the most original writer in Hollywood? Is he as good as the hype? Can he keep it up?

And what about his twin brother, eh ?

Kaufman (one F), IMHO, is nowhere as good as his hype. I liked Confessions a lot but found Malkovich fun but absurdly overrated and Adaptation a desparate navel-gazing tease. There’s something relentlessly “eccentric” in an airless sort of way about the last two films listed, both of which suffer from third acts that are dead ends. I liked the Chuck Barris adaptation because it was the closest Kaufman has come to exploring a real 3-dimensional person instead of mere conceit. Of course, the two Spike Jonze films benefit from their unpredictability and very good casts, but I’m looking forward to when Kaufman proves he can write without a gimmick as a crutch. Confessions is an encouraging start.

Pound for pound, Scott Frank, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and David O. Russell are all better writers form CK’s generation.

I must disagree, ArchiveGuy. He’s wildly talented and has three good movies under his belt. While Adaptation may be “navel gazing”, it’s still a great, funny, well thought-out and exquisitly structured movie. The first time I saw it, I was thrown by the third act, but the second time I thought it fit perfectly. Action (in this case, the writing of the third act) flowed perfectly from character (Donald).

And why is “navel-gazing” such a bad thing? Writing classes all over America, with their endless journal keeping exercises, are teaching “navel-gazing” right now. It’s the zeitgiest. The book he was adapting, The Orchid Theif, is itself an exercise in navel gazing. Like so many nonfiction writers in the last 30 years (like Hunter S. Thompson, to name one) Susan Orlean injected herself into her story. So what’s wrong with a writer injecting himself into a screenplay based on a book in which the writer injected herself into her own narrative? Isn’t that in keeping with the spirit of the book?

While I agree with you that Wes Anderson is a great writer, and David O. Russell’s Three Kings is bloody brilliant, neither one of them have demonstrated Kaufman’s depth of imagination. As for Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights was great, if long winded. Magnolia, on the other hand, is an overrated steaming pile of wack. I want that three (four? six?) hours of my life back. At least Kaufman’s not boring.

However, there is one area in which I must partially agree with you. Kaufman and Jonez together have the potential to really knock one out of the park and make a undeniably classic movie. The two movies they have made together so far have both been concerned with examining art and the way we relate to art. There’s nothing wrong with this–it’s a subject as old as art itself. But the world has changed and the old assumptions about art’s place in society must be changed as well or art will become even more irrelevant than it already is. They have the freedom right now to make a great “issue” movie. They’ve pointed out the way our relationship to art has us running in circles right now. The logical next step is to point out a way to break out of it.

I will agree and disagree.

I think Adaptation is brilliant. The third act is exactly what it should be, given the impulse that takes over the storytelling.

But I thought Human Nature was mediocre, really. That’s the “forgotten” Kaufman movie; it’s not directed by a major name, it’s got a lower-profile cast, it didn’t get much press, etc. All of that is deservedly so, in my opinion; it’s a one-joke premise at the screenplay level. It comes off as something Kaufman wrote in college and dusted off for sale when his other work started getting notice.

I have to say, though, that I’m very much looking forward to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a two-character chamber piece, to a great extent, and is about the nature of romantic love. That should tell us once and for all whether or not Kaufman relies on gimmick or is the real deal.

Exactly! What a lot of people fail to realize about Adaptation is that it’s not a failed adaptation of the book. It does an amazing job of adapting not only scenes from the book but also its themes and its spirit. The most obvious are the scenes lifted directly – especially the car accident that killed Laroche’s mother. A little bit more subtle are the scenes where he takes an segment of the book and “adapts” it to his own experience – at the orchid show, Kaufman starts directly quoting a long passage in the book about the different types of orchids (“One looks like a cat, one looks like a lady’s handbag…”) and slowly turns it into his own obsession, all the women he can never connect with (“One looks like a schoolteacher…”).

And then, of course, the structure itself conveys the spirit of the book. Like Orlean, Kaufman inserts himself into the story. Like Orlean, Kaufman is an overly-intellectual outsider in a world of people driven by passion (in particular, his “brother”). He looks down on them as trite and formulaic at the beginning, but eventually realizes that they understand things on a level that he’s overlooked.

People act as if the final act was a gimmick tacked on to the end of the movie because he couldn’t come up with a better solution, which is baffling. It ties the whole movie together, and works on several levels. It’s funny, both because it’s so over the top and because of the irony of its turning into exactly the type of movie he didn’t intend to make. It works just on a base thematic level, because when he and his brother work together, the movie becomes an action movie (Donald’s part) where the characters learn about themselves (Charlie’s part, where both he and Orlean break down and realize what they’ve lost). It’s a satire of the people who claim that nothing happens in the book – the book has its own arc, but Hollywood isn’t satisfied with such an ambiguous ending with a wholly personal, introspective revelation; they need to see what would’ve happened if Orlean had actually seen a ghost orchid. (And of course, Kaufman shows that that would’ve ruined everything.) And it’s not just a mean-spirited satire, because Kaufman doesn’t come to his own “epiphany” until he’s experienced Donald’s side of the story.

Anyway, it’s obvious that I think Adaptation was about as near-genius a production as you can get. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was just fine; it was interesting enough, but the movie doesn’t really add much. Everything innovative was done when Barris first wrote the book.