The list of American screenwriters who have attained name-brand status in the last thirty years is a relatively short one. It used to be that the writer was king in Hollywood; the advent of the so-called auteur theory effectively quelled that notion. Of course, there are still your Aaron Sorkins, your Steven Zaillians, your Eric Roths, your Kevin Willmotts, and your Greta Gerwigs. Alas, it says something that all but one of these writers has directed a film (or films) of their own.
Another name to add to the list is Charlie Kaufman, whom critics have been trying (and failing) to fit into a box for twenty-plus years now. Kaufman all but redefined his chosen craft at a time when American studios were consistently taking expensive chances on risky, boundary-pushing narrative concepts. The acclaimed writer-director has gone on to influence an entire generation, to the point where it could be argued that Kaufman more or less created his own school of thought on screenwriting. Obviously, the word “genius” gets thrown around too often these days – and much of the time, it’s used incorrectly – but we’re just going to go ahead and say it, Charlie Kaufman is a genius.
And like all geniuses, Kaufman has enjoyed his fair share of ups and downs in this business. Throughout it all, he’s stubbornly maintained an original, at times alienating vision of the world as a vast, terrifyingly uncertain place that is all but indifferent to our petty human foibles – this, in spite of the fact that the films Kaufman writes so often portray authentic human connection as something akin to spiritual transcendence.
For upwards of two decades, Kaufman has remained relevant and iconic, consistently chafing against expectations of what his fans think he should be doing. He’s directed his own movies, he penned what many cinephiles consider to be one of the all-time great unproduced screenplays with “Frank or Francis” —a hilarious musical about an online film critic and his beef with a Hollywood star— and just this year, he released his first novel, “Antkind”: a rambling, maddening, occasionally very inspired work of Pynchonesque madness that is destined to be remembered as the weirdest book of a very weird year.
WATCH: Celebrating The Surreality Of Charlie Kaufman’s Filmography
Our moviegoing world, uncertain as it now seems, has always been a richer, funnier, infinitely more unusual place with Kaufman in it. To celebrate the impending release of his third directorial effort, “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things,” we’ve decided to do a run-down of all the films Charlie Kaufman has ever had a hand in – good, great, disappointing, and everything in between. Enjoy!
“Being John Malkovich” (1999)
It really is hard to overstate just how fresh the voice of Charlie Kaufman felt in 1999, when his screenwriting debut, “Being John Malkovich,” landed on unsuspecting audiences like a neutron bomb of pure, untamed creativity. 1999 is frequently referred to as a watershed year when it comes to imaginative and unorthodox studio movies, but even when juxtaposed against the daring likes of “Magnolia,” “Fight Club,” and “The Matrix,” “John Malkovich” has them all beat when it comes to the sheer audacity of its vision, which is to say nothing of the humane idiosyncrasy of its execution. The “humane” part of said equation can largely be attributed to director Spike Jonze, who possesses an enviable gift for bringing playfulness and levity to Kaufman’s abrasive worldview without sanding off its edges. That said, “Being John Malkovich” is such a foundational text for Kaufman, seeing so many of the themes that he would spend the rest of his career exploring – the painful solitude of a creative life, the inherently human desire to escape the stifling confines of our own experience, and, if we’re being honest, manic-pixie dream girls – blossoming in full view. And that’s to say nothing of the film’s social prescience, and how it all but predicted our still-growing obsession with vapid celebrity culture. “Being John Malkovich” is one of the seminal films of its decade, as well as a launching pad for the career of one of our great living screenwriters.
“Human Nature” (2001)
Well, this is a weird one. “Human Nature,” directed by Michel Gondry, remains perhaps the only outright flop in Charlie Kaufman’s filmography. As a motion picture experience, it’s aggressively whimsical, largely thanks to Gondry, making his feature debut here after a string of inventive and well-received music videos. The movie never really works as a lo-fi philosophical doodle, and yet it’s also too haggard in its technique to evoke genuine laughter. The film, about a mad scientist (Tim Robbins) attempting to civilize a wild-eyed caveman named Puff (Rhys Ifans), certainly has an interesting production history. Kaufman’s script was originally supposed to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who, believe it or not, almost cast Chris Kattan in the crucial role of Puff (which, it must be said, is strikingly similar to Kattan’s Mr. Peppers character from ‘SNL’). Ifans, as always, is truly committed as a primordial man-creature learning how to be human, and Patricia Arquette does her best as the lead character’s underwritten love interest (Kaufman would go on to write more compelling and fully fleshed-out female parts later in his career, but he struggles here). “Human Nature” is working from a novel, even inspired premise, but Kaufman’s self-satisfaction, a frequent Achilles’ heel in his lesser work, does not mesh well with Gondry’s penchant for homespun zaniness. For Kaufman completists only – oh, and those who might get a laugh out of watching lab mice use kitchen cutlery.
Eighteen years after its release and it’s still tough to describe to an uninitiated viewer just what the hell Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” is about: obsession, the commercialization of art, orchid poachers, screenwriting, creative stasis, brotherhood, Chris Cooper’s ability to bend and twist the idioms of the English language to his whim… oh, and two Nicolas Cages figure into the mix, somehow. Let’s be honest, the brain-breaking nature of “Adaptation,” and the difficulty that even the most seasoned film critics struggle with when attempting to describe its magic, is one of the reasons that it remains one of the greatest and most lasting films of the 2000s. As the second collaboration between Jonze and Kaufman, “Adaptation” manages to simultaneously build off and even eclipse the themes that the two men began exploring in “Being John Malkovich,” resulting in a sustained, indescribably blissful tragicomic symphony that’s engineered to reconfigure the circuits in your movie-loving brain. Cage in particular gives TWO of the most subtle and devastating performances of his career here: one as a self-loathing, fictionalized version of Kaufman himself, and again as Charlie’s inexplicably successful, happy-go-lucky brother, Donald. “Adaptation” is a film with plenty to say about the process of mining your life for inspiration, the paradox of interpreting another artist’s work, and the inescapable cosmic truth that the only thing that makes this lonely, cataclysmic existence worth living is the company of our fellow human beings.