Grade: C+

This is the second collaboration of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, after the marvelously bizarre surprise of “Being John Malkovich” (1999), and so it’s perhaps appropriate–though unfortunate–that it should be so sophomoric. Their first film was both clever and smart, with a subtext that took viewers literally far beneath the surface of its oddball narrative; “Adaptation” also proves clever, but in a juvenile, self-indulgent fashion that loudly calls attention to itself without leading to anything more significant than its flashy exterior. The difference between “Malkovich” and the new picture is that the former was an in-joke that had some substance to it, while “Adaptation” is just an in-joke that seems pointlessly showy. It’s less like the duo’s earlier triumph than “Human Nature,” last spring’s nature-vs.-civilization misfire that Kaufman wrote and Jonze merely produced, leaving the directing duties to Michel Gondry. Any hope that it was the intrusion of Gondry that ruined the Kaufman-Jonze chemistry, however, is dashed by this venture, from which Michel is missing (and the fact that one Donald Kaufman is listed as co-writer is a jest, of course–one whose lameness reflects the whole project).

“Adaptation” is essentially a riff on two meanings of the titular word. One is the idea of adaptation in the Darwinian sense, a theme that’s introduced from the very beginning through a montage about the evolution of life. The other, which becomes the focus of a reality-vs.-illusion narrative very reminiscent of “Malkovich,” refers to the process of adapting a book into a film script. Here the focus is on Charlie Kaufman himself, or more properly a made-up version of him played by Nicolas Cage as a terrified social misfit, who’s wrestling with the task of transforming Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. Meanwhile his slick, superficial twin brother Donald (Cage again), who’s been sponging off Charlie, decides to go into the script business himself under the tutelage of popular lecturer Robert McKee (Brian Cox), who teaches aspiring screenwriters the conventions of the Hollywood trade. The Pirandello-like complications of the narrative involve a re-imagining of the relationship of Orlean, who becomes a character played by Meryl Streep, with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the oddball orchid poacher her book is about–a hayseed autodidact whom the author, stuck in a stifling marriage, comes to find irresistible. At least that’s what happens in the musings of Kaufman–or, in the film, of the Kaufmans–who eventually turns her story, in the final half-hour, into precisely the collection of cliches (secret lovemaking, threats of violence, a chase through a swamp) that Charlie had always inveighed against while Donald embraced them; “adaptation” thus becomes a synonym for “compromise.” It also apparently signifies breaking through to some sort of emotional connection, whatever the risks.

All this is terribly complicated, of course, but what it all boils down to is just an extended, or more properly overextended, prank about how “the survival of the fittest” works in Hollywood–namely, by adapting oneself to the hackneyed conventions that the system demands of those within it. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have flashes of brilliance. The first glimpse of Cage, as Kaufman, caught in some supposedly behind-the-scenes footage taken during the “Malkovich” shoot, is wittily done, and the montage covering the emergence of human life on earth certainly is dextrously edited (though it misses an obvious joke by failing to include a cut of an ape tossing a bone into the air at the appropriate point). Some of the humor regarding the impoverished Hollywood conception about what constitutes a bankable script is amusing enough, if hardly cutting-edge. Cox bellows hilariously as the hard-drinking, violently opinionated McKee. And Cooper, one of the most underappreciated of actors, seems to relish playing a wildly extroverted, loquacious character for a change; even the gag of having him go through the role with an empty space where his front teeth should be doesn’t pale. Some of the supporting cast–Tilda Swinton as a studio executive, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Donald’s current girlfriend, Jay Tavare as one of Laroche’s Indian pals–make good impressions, too.

But otherwise “Adaptation” seems a thin, smug conceit, and one that gets more tired and exasperating as it goes along. By the halfway point the wit has curdled, and the final act, with its adultery, guns, and car chases, is as painful as the bad endings it’s parodying. (That may be the point, but it doesn’t make it any less deplorable.) Cage’s willingness to change his physical appearance is certainly admirable–he’s positively pudgy here–and he smoothly distinguishes Charlie from Donald; but the level of exaggeration and mugging in his performance(s) is pretty fierce, and eventually watching him becomes more ordeal than pleasure. Streep’s talent is sadly underutilized; the last twenty minutes are positively embarrassing for her. Cameos by filmmakers like Curtis Hanson and David O. Russell and stars like Catherine Keener might bring a smile to the faces of buffs, but they’ll be insignificant to most viewers. And while Jonze’s skill is still apparent–he accommodates the complex transitions in the script well, and manages some imaginative moments–as a whole “Adaptation” lacks the certainty of touch that was apparent throughout “Malkovich.” The film’s not very impressive technically, either. The darkness and ragged look may be suitable to a tale of Charlie’s inner sturm und drang, but they’re still not very pleasant to gaze on.

“Adaptation” may appeal to those who enjoy insider movie humor, some of whom will probably consider its obvious jabs hilarious; but actually they’re no more cutting that those in “Simone,” which most wrongly dismissed as fluff, and they’re considerably less enjoyable. (The fact that this picture is narratively fractured and messy while the Pacino film was straightforwardly structured doesn’t make it better.) One can only hope that next time around, Kaufman and Jonze’s imagination will find a less clumsily self-referential, more consistently inspired outlet.