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Film review: Adaptation.

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ADAPTATION —*** 1/2 — Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Cara Seymour, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Judy Greer; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, drug use, sex, violence, brief nudity, brief gore).

"Adaptation" is both everything and less than it purports to be.

This bizarre but refreshing dark comedy is supposedly based — at least partially — on "The Orchid Thief," the nonfiction best seller by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, but the real-life Orlean could be justifiably horrified at the way her fictional counterpart behaves in the movie.

Then there's the script, credited to Charlie and Donald Kaufman, twin screenwriters who turn out to be the movie's two main characters as well. However, in reality, only Charlie exists.

Confused yet? Actually, there's a pretty good chance that the film's deeper concepts and more subtle satire will fly over the heads of many members of the audience, including those who loved Kaufman's quirky "Being John Malkovich."

None of this spoils anything, but paying close attention to the dialogue is key; there are clues sprinkled throughout the film to help with understanding the film's really odd final third, which doesn't make sense until all the pieces of the puzzle are revealed.

"Adaptation" is also something of a comeback for actor Nicolas Cage, who stars as Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother. Charlie's just come off the success of "Being John Malkovich" and is looking to do something different to write when he lands the assignment of adapting Orlean's book. Easier said than done, especially for someone as neurotic as Charlie, who's having a hard time coming up with a concept for such a film.

In the meantime, his thick-headed twin Donald is finding considerably greater success with his own screenplay — a gimmicky serial-killer thriller. And he seems to have found love with a studio makeup girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Still, Donald does have his moment of coherence, and he tries to convince Charlie that he should talk to Orlean (Meryl Streep), as well as the subject of her book, horticultural expert John Laroche (Chris Cooper).

That's a fairly straightforward recap of a plot that's far more complicated and bizarre — one that also tests the impressive storytelling skills of director Spike Jonze, who was also Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" collaborator.

Among the actors, Cage is quite good in both of his roles, making Charlie and Donald related but distinctive and compelling characters. And the always dependable Streep really seems to relish her character's peculiar story arc. But the real standout is underrated veteran Cooper, whose stellar work in support has already made him an Oscar front-runner.

"Adaptation" is rated R for occasional use of strong sex-related profanity, crude sexual slang terms and other sex talk, simulated drug use (an orchid derivative, snorted), simulated sex and sex acts, violence (vehicular and gunplay), flashes of male and female nudity and brief gore. Running time: 112 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com