Near bullseye, but sadly a miss
Adaptation is about many things. About orchids, about the peculiar relationship between Orlean and Laroche (both real and fictional), about insecurity, about itself... But to me, as an aspiring writer, it's first and foremost a movie about the creative process itself; about writing. It strikes a chord there. This is why I feel so cheated by the ending. The first three quarters of the movie are brilliant. Author Avatar Charlie's struggle about the script parallels the process that the real Charlie presumably went through, and I can certainly believe it. It's real. It feels real. Donald is his obvious antithesis, as the kind of hack writer that Charlie doesn't want to become. He plays the role well, even when he's more or less the only fictional character in a story populated almost entirely by fictionalized real people. Then comes the last act, and it goes off the rails. The events escalate in absurdity, and you don't know what to make out of them. It's too horrible to be real, even within the universe in which Author Avatar Charlie lives. It's also too out-of-character to be real, for everyone involved. When Orlean starts sobbing over Laroche's corpse, you don't know whether to feel sorry for them, or whether to expect the movie to pull an All Just A Dream. After all, imaginary sequences pepper the film — and always end with Charlie waking up. You almost want Charlie to pause, tell Donald something like "you know, your ideas are good, but I'll manage without you somehow", and then overcome his insecurities and go meet Orlean, happy and free. Except it never happens. Even if we accept that we aren't supposed to treat that entire part of the movie as real — that it's not a bad Hollywood climax, but merely a meta-commentary about bad Hollywood climaxes — the ending doesn't support this. Charlie treats the events as real... then easily shakes them off. And again, the viewer is left confused. If Donald and Laroche really died and Susan really was arrested within the movie's continuity, then it should be mourned... but instead we're left to watch Charlie happily riding into the sunset? Most of the movie says, "These are real complex people; please treat them as such." The last act says, "These are Hollywood dramatizations; please don't." And this is what unfortunately hamstrings what would otherwise be a masterpiece.