A Million Billion Kaufmans

For a while now, I have wanted to like the films of Charlie Kaufman a good deal more than I did. As a fan of both Fellini and the Monty Python troupe, I place a high value on well-done weirdness, and there are few experiences so bracingly weird as a Kaufman picture in full flight; Kaufman is a screenwriter with a unique voice and a seemingly unstoppable imagination. But after walking away from Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind feeling at least as irritated as I was intrigued, it's time for me to admit publicly that I don't think that Charlie Kaufman is, as the kids would say, all that.

It is a lonesome thing, to be a film critic in 2003 who confesses to finding Kaufman's work deeply flawed at best. At this point, Kaufman could sign his name to the Scranton, Pennsylvania, phone book; somebody would probably produce the thing; and critics across the land would dutifully hail Kaufman for his daring and originality. (Actually, I wouldn't put just such an artistic scam past Kaufman, either.) Kaufman's pictures invariably tank at the box office, but the critics swoon over them; they win sacks of awards; and they seem to attract ever more lustrous, big-name casts: George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore for Dangerous Mind; Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood for the upcoming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

I knew I was in trouble early on in Being John Malkovich, Kaufman's big-screen debut after knocking around in sitcom land for a few years; there was a scene in which John Cusack is applying for a job, and Orson Bean, as the head of the company where Cusack is applying, holds up two cards, one bearing a letter and one bearing a squiggle.

“Which of these two letters comes first,” Bean asks, “this one or this one?”

An understandably apprehensive Cusack replies, “The symbol on the left is not a letter, sir.”

“Damn, you're good,” is Bean's delighted reply. “I was trying to trick you!”

This, friends, is the kind of time-wasting, strenuously whimsical nonsense that never should have made it past a first draft; the Pythons wrote a lot of this sort of thing in their day, only they had the sense to cut almost all of it before filming and only left it scribbled in the margins of their collected script books for the edification of really die-hard Python geeks like me. The Pythons understood that there is a line between the compellingly surreal and simply farting around, but it's a line that Kaufman swerves across so constantly and so wildly that watching him in action is enough to give you whiplash. Very few writers can bang out a first draft and have it be great or even any good; Kafka could. Hunter S. Thompson arguably can (or could, anyhow). The rest of us have to go over the same damn words until we bleed out the ears. Kaufman strikes me as a writer in desperate need of multiple revisions.

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Every Kaufman picture is a mixed bag, but perhaps none have been so mixed and so baggy as Adaptation, which has been playing to critical raves for some weeks now. Nicholas Cage stars as Kaufman himself in a story about Kaufman's abortive attempts to adapt an (actual) best-selling book into a film. He throws in a fictitious twin brother (also a screenwriter) and flashbacks to both the set of Being John Malkovich and Hollywood at the time of the dinosaurs, and the whole thing is enough to give any sane person a horrific migraine. As with any Kaufman picture, there is some great stuff here, but these are but the meaty chunks in a stew of pure, self-indulgent slop. It's a film so achingly self-referential that it calls to mind the scene in Being John Malkovich in which the hapless Malkovich disappears up his own cranial orifice and lands in a nightmare universe populated by a million billion Malkoviches.

And so, as the critical accolades predictably pile up for Adaptation, I have to wonder if other critics are seeing virtues in Kaufman I'm blind to or if their minds are simply so starved for novelty after reviewing one too many Will Smith movies that they have been rendered powerless in the face of Kaufman's anything-goes aesthetic. Unfortunately, that theory falls apart when I think about other oddball pictures—just as flawed but just as interesting as Kaufman's—that have been attacked by the critics with a viciousness at least equal to the fawning they have lavished on Kaufman. Monkeybone, for instance. But once Monkeybone had the rep as the worst thing ever, there were few critics brave enough to come forward and say there was much to admire about it, while now there are few critics who would be brave enough to come forward and admit that Kaufman is, if not quite an emperor with no clothes, at least an emperor in an alarmingly revealing Speedo. Critics are a cowardly, superstitious lot.

Kaufman arrived to us a promising talent, but the critics are hardly nurturing his gifts by declaring his development complete; it's like telling a gawky, 12-year-old ballerina that she's perfect just as she is and doesn't need to practice anymore. Right now, there's no real incentive for Kaufman to progress as an artist, and unless he does, he'll end up stuck in his own head forever, pointlessly knocking around with a million billion Kaufmans.

If that proves true, the epitaph for his career could be another line from Being John Malkovich, this time sighed by the world-weary, 105-year-old Bean: “I've been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech.”

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