Charlie: I've written myself into my screenplay.Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, fresh off the success of Being John Malkovich, had a problem. He'd been hired to adapt the Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief, about her experiences with rare flower hunter John Laroche, into a film, only to find out it had no real story and was mostly about flowers. Going out of his mind with writer's block, he eventually went off the deep end and wrote a screenplay beginning with:
Donald: That's kind of weird, huh?
Donald: That's kind of weird, huh?
This movie provides examples of:
- Adaptation Decay: Charlie's inability to adapt Orlean's story. The movie is unique in being about its own adaptation decay..
- Auto Cannibalism: The modus operandi of the Serial Killer in Donald's script, The Three. He also dies from this as the villain and the leading lady are the same person.
- The Cameo: John Malkovich appears as himself on the set of Being John Malkovich (Kaufman's previous movie where Malkovich played himself), along with several other cast members.
- Chekhov's Gun The montage at the beginning showed two alligators in the swamp where Laroche is stealing orchids with the natives. They would later show up in the climax to save Charlie and Donald from Laroche.
- Creator Breakdown: Charlie goes through this, ultimately writing himself into the story.
- Credits Gag: "Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman." The film is dedicated to Donald's memory as well. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so Donald is possibly the only fictional character to receive any real-life awards nomination. (Donald's "picture" on the Oscarcast was a picture of Charlie reversed.)
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Charlie, rather frequently. We're even lucky enough to see what he's thinking..
- Decon-Recon Switch: For movie clichés.
- Despair Event Horizon: By the end of the film Susan Orlean regrets everything she's done her entire life.
- Deus ex Machina: Discussed and defied. Charlie and Donald are saved from Orlean and Laroche by alligators appearing and attacking Laroche. However, this use is really a late-hung Chekhov's Gun as just before the third act where everything gets weird, Charlie is told by screenwriting guru Robert McKee that Deus ex Machina is lazy writing.
- Fanservice: It's surprisingly abundant. There is a lot of toplessness (some of it coming from Meryl Streep of all people)
- Fantastic Drug: Susan and Laroche are apparently hooked on a drug made from the Ghost Orchids.
- Genre Shift: Charlie asks Donald for help writing the film's ending...
- Indecisive Deconstruction: The movie is this on purpose. First, it explicitly states all the tropes it's not going to use, and in the second half it gleefully goes all out in using them. Not for the art, but as a commentary about Executive Meddling.
- Inner Monologue: Which disappears the moment Robert McKee says it's hackneyed.
- Kavorka Man: Ron Livingston's character is an agent who isn't above using his job to score aspiring actresses. In conversation with Charlie he frequently breaks off in mid-sentence to mutter "Ooh, I fucked you in the ass!" at women passing in the background.
- Donald is another example.
- The Killer in Me: Spoofed. Donald's hackneyed script "The Three" has the twist that the killer, the detective, and the victim are all the same person. Charlie complains that it makes no sense, but it's a smash hit anyway.
- Lampshade Hanging: "And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing."
- It must be noted that in real life, Robery McKee says he allows voice over "despite what Charlie Kaufman tells you" as long as it does more than simply describe what's happening on the screen.
- Charlie questions the logistics of Donald's script, asking "How could you have somebody held prisoner in a basement and... and working at a police station at the same time?", and Donald responds "trick photography": This is of course in a scene where two characters played by the same actor interact with each other.
- Lovable Rogue: Laroche. The fictional version of him, at least. The real one actually organized that poaching operation to draw the authorities' attention to the legal loophole.
- Meta Fiction
- Mind Screw: Seriously. Just think about it for a minute, especially considering that most of this story is true.
- Though this depends a lot on your definition of "truth." See Mind Screw.
- Mood Whiplash: The final act, very intentionally so.
- Never Smile at a Crocodile
- Opening Narration: The film opens with a black screen and Donald talking about his loser life for 90 seconds.
- Polar Opposite Twins: Donald and Charlie Kaufman.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Charlie approaches adapting the book in every way possible, going to far as to open the story with the beginning of the universe... and still getting nowhere. The movie itself is Charlie's answer to adapting a book that could not possibly make for a good movie (at least without an amazing level of Adaptation Decay). The irony is that the film is able to cover all important details of The Orchid Thief through Charlie's obsession with the lack of any narrative, only going off on completely original material towards the end.
- Self-Insert Fic: A more professional example than most.
- Shadow Archetype: Donald functions as Charlie's Jungian Shadow, representing everything that he rejects about himself/his profession or doesn't want to become. And, true to Jung's idea, Charlie only grows as a person when he accepts that there are good things about Donald and learns from them after Donald's death.
- Shaggy Dog Story: The Orchid Thief.
- Split Personality: In The Three, the detective, killer and hostage all turn out to be the same person. However that's supposed to work.
- Stylistic Suck: Donald's cliched thriller. At least, how much it sucks is based on Charlie's opinion of the material as described by Donald. Also, the entire final act; Charlie finally allows Donald to assist with the Orchid Thief script he's writing, thereby altering their own reality in the process.
- Title Drop: In Laroche's speech about evolution
- Writers Suck: Kaufman's self deprecation is the major theme of this film, and this self-loathing persists until The Climax. At the same time, however, Kaufman (the real writer) uses his Author Avatar to capture the triumph and joy of the creative process, and the qualities that separate a talented writer from a hack like Donald.