Meryl Streep received her thirteenth Oscar nomination (third in the Supporting Actress category) for her performance as Susan Orlean in Spike Jonze's Adaptation.. Is it safe to say that Adaptation. is the "weirdest" film ever nominated for three acting Academy Awards? At least when judging on the strict curve of typical "Oscar bait", I'd say so (though The Master is probably a close runner-up). Case in point, it is difficult to even begin to describe the film in a few brief sentences, but here goes: Adaptation. is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) novel The Orchid Thief into a film. But...it's also a kind of, sort of, an adaptation of the book itself, which is about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an orchid thief who was arrested for illegally poaching the flower off a state park. But it's not really a true adaptation, since a majority of the events were made up by Kaufman when he struggled to adapt the book, including inventing a fictional twin brother for himself also played by Nicolas Cage as well as inventing a romance between Orlean and Laroche. If you haven't seen the film, just go watch it and don't even bother trying to understand what that all means. The film is self-referential, confusing, and challenging in a way that most Oscar nominated films are not which is so refreshing.
Of all the characters in the film, Streep's Susan Orlean changes the most radically from start to finish, whereas the kooks played by Cooper and Cage have less radical changes occur. At the start of the film we see Susan Orlean as she probably is in real life, a serious journalist simply looking for a story by hunting down Laroche in Florida for an article. She's a very controlled, tightly coiled woman who approaches Laroche as a subject and nothing more. But Streep is a genius is subtle modulations, and a few scenes into the performance we begin to see the inner workings of Susan Orlean reveal themselves in subtle yet powerful ways. An early scene that stands out is when she is questioning one of Laroche's workers, who compliments her hair and softly touches it and cracks of longing, loneliness, and sexual frustration begin to show. Streep reveals these cracks with simple looks and a slight giggle, never overplaying her hand and always remaining a tight control over Orlean's emotions.
In the course of a few meetings with Laroche and in the process or writing her article (and eventually, book) she begins to acknowledge her loneliness more overtly in voice over. Streep maintains the control over her character's external demeanor, but the inner longing for purpose and the feeling that she is missing various types of passion in her life become very clear during her solitary scenes. She's the emotional core of the film, sometimes unveiling many of the themes very blatantly through voice over, but constantly adjusting scene by scene in a way that is sincere and very effective. We begins to see Susan Orlean as a tragic figure who is deeply unhappy in her life, and her admiration for Laroche grows as she notices his life is filled with multiple passions and her with not a single one.
Then, of course, comes the point in which Streep's performance finally joins in on the wonderful weirdness of her two costars. She is given some (fictional) drugs by Laroche that derive from the orchids he collects, and falls into an addiction to the drug as well as a romance with Laroche. The scene where she first tries the drugs is an absolute triumph, and Streep is funny, touching, and just zany enough to convincingly be drugged out. It's also a rather sad scene because instead of finding her passion and purpose in life, she finds herself seeking solace in this drug and in the arms of a somewhat crazy man. Though Streep is good at showing the very rapid descent of Susan Orlean, she can't quite make the romance aspects work. The script just sort of suddenly decides they are romantically involved, but Cooper and Streep have only mild romantic chemistry and work better as author and subject earlier in the film. In the final few scenes we see just how sad this woman has become, as Orlean becomes violent and pretty damn scary. She is nothing like the woman at the start of the film, but her problems remain mostly the same internally as she still struggles with those same persistent problems in her core.
Throughout this film we get to see the gradual decline of Susan Orlean, and Meryl Streep is an expert at convincingly tugging us along with this woman's sad descent. She is never over the top or pushing these changes, but masterfully unwinds them in a deliberate fashion. As she slowly unravels the inner workings of this woman, she shows how she attempts to fill to holes in her life only to make them deeper and more heartbreaking. In a film so "meta" and quirky, Meryl proves that she can once again acquit herself wonderfully and excel in any genre. This is easily the strangest of her thousands of Oscar nominated performances, but also one of her most interesting. 4.5/5 Thelmas.