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As the title and credits flash on a black screen, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) bemoans his life in a self-loathing monologue, questioning everything about himself and his life up until now. I am old. I am fat. I am bald. My toenails have turned strange. I am repulsive. How repulsive? I dont know for I suffer from a condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I am fat, but am I as fat as I think? My therapist says no, but people lie. I believe others call me Fatty behind my back. Or Fatso. Or, facetiously, Slim. But I also believe this is simply my own perverted form of self- aggrandizement, that no one really talks about me at all. Why would they? What possible interest is an old, bald, fat man to anyone? I am repulsive. I have never lived. I blame myself. Al I do is sit on my fat ass. I need to turn my life around. But Ill still be ugly. Nothing is going to change that.
Flashback to the set of Being John Malkovich. The set is bustling with cast and crew preparing to shoot a scene in the stunted hallway where much of that movie takes place. Charlie is standing off to the side, watching the action. Someone tells him to get off the stage. Hes a tall, balding man with a penchant for sweaters and slouching. What am I doing here? Charlie questions in his internal monologue. Nobody even knows who I am. How did I get here?
The onscreen title Hollywood: 4 billion and four years earlier appears over a barren landscape. Evolution begins, speeded up by time-lapse photography.
Charlie is seated in a fine, trendy restaurant, sweat pouring off his face. Across the table is Valerie, whos talking to him about adapting Susan Orleans book, The Orchid Thief, for the big screen. Charlie is full of praise about the book and says he doesnt want to make it into something its not. I dont want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running.
Flashback to three years earlier, New York City: Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is writing her book, The Orchid Thief.
Flashback to Florida two years earlier: John Laroche (Chris Cooper) is driving a white van down a lonely two-lane highway cutting through swampland. And old green station wagon follows. Laroche is a skinny man with no front teeth and long, stringy hair that looks as if it hasnt been washed in weeks. The van and wagon pull into the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche and three Native Americans enter the swamp in search of rare orchids, specifically the ghost orchid. When they find one, Laroche directs one of his companions to take the plant. The four exit the swamp, their arms laden with plants stuffed in pillowcases. A park ranger driving past stops to question them. May I ask what you have in those pillowcases?
Laroche tells him they have 130 plant varieties, many of them rare, and taken from the state preserve. He also tells him that the three men with him are Seminole Indians, pointing out that the state of Florida has not been able to successfully prosecute Seminoles, even in murder cases.
The movie returns to Charlie, who walks in the door of his home, which he shares temporarily with his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage).
Donald tells his brother that he has a plan to get out of Charlies house. A plan is a job, Charlie replies. Im going to be a screenwriter just like you, Donald tells him, saying that he is enrolling in a screenwriting course given by Robert McKee. Charlie is disparaging of the idea and tells his brother that, essentially, those courses are a rip-off and a waste of time. In his room, Charlie stares at a newspaper clipping about a violinist, Amelia.
Amelia and Charlie are at a party, sitting in an alcove and drinking. Amelia is convinced that she has to get Charlie out there, meaning interacting with women and dating. Charlie kind of brushes off her comments and says hes still surprised that he got the job adapting the Orlean book. He and Amelia look at each other, in that way two people who want to kiss each other do. But nothing happens between them and the moment is lost.
Charlie sits in his room, a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter before him, looking for a place to start the screenplay for The Orchid Thief. Stymied, he turns to the book for inspiration.
Susan Orlean voice overs about Laroches fascination with orchids. Laroche loved orchids but I came to believe he loved the difficulty and fatality of getting them as much as he loved the orchids themselves.
The scene shifts to a courtroom where Laroche is testifying about his expertise in the orchid field. Outside the courthouse, Orlean approaches him and tells him that she wants to write a piece on him for The New Yorker magazine. He doesnt seem interested in talking to her until he realizes the potential for his own self-aggrandizement.
Charlie, still waiting for inspiration to strike, decides he needs a break. He still has written nothing.
Amelia and Charlie are riding in a car after a concert. Amelia is full of praise for he violinist they just saw. I wish I could play like that. Charlie assures her that she is a wonderful, talented violinist. He pulls up in front of her house and Amelia invites him in. Charlie declines, saying hes had trouble working on the script and really needs a good nights sleep to get things sorted out. Charlie invites her to accompany him to an orchid show in Santa Barbara, research for the screenplay, but she politely declines. Amelia gets out of the car and Charlie sits there, his mental monologue piling on the abuse about what he should have done, how he should just get out of the car, open the door and kiss Amelia. Im not kissing her, he voice overs, and then leaves.
Florida. Laroche picks up Susan outside the hotel. Laroche tells her about his motivation to find the ghost orchid: hes a businessman and wants to find it, grow it from clippings and mass market it. Susan nods in acknowledgement while writing delusions of grandeur in her notebook.
California. Charlie is reading. Brother Donald says hes going to pitch his screenplay the next day. Dont say pitch, Charlie admonishes. Donald tells him that he described the screenplay to their mother. She said its like Silence of the Lambs meets Psycho.
Florida: Susan pulls up at the nursery where Laroche works and meets one of the Seminoles who was caught with him. She decides to interview him for her story. Matthew seems fascinated by Susans long blonde hair and seems
stoned, almost. Im not going to talk to you much, he tells her. Its not persona; its the Indian way.
Susan and Laroche go to a flower show together and Laroche tells her what makes orchids so prized. He speaks passionately about them and Susan begins to fall under the spell he weaves.
Back in New York, Susan and her husband have a group of friends over for dinner and regale them with stories about Laroche. Susan excuses herself and goes to the bathroom. She looks in the mirror as she continues to listen to her husband tell stories about Laroche and an almot guilty expression crosses her face, tinged with sadness and longing. I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants. I want to know what it feels like to want something passionately.
While working on her book, Susan voice overs that she needs to see this ghost orchid, to know this object that stirs such passion in people.
Susan and Laroche her about his serial collecting habit: he went from turtles to ice age fossils to mirrors. So, did you ever miss the turtles? Susan asks. He tells her a story about falling in love with tropical fish to the extent that he had sixty fish tanks in his house. Then one day I say, fuck fish, he tells her. I vow to never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe into that ocean. And I love the ocean. Susan asks why. Done with fish, he replies.
Charlie is reading The Orchid Thief while at a diner. He orders key lime pie and coffee. The waitress, seeing the book, tells him, I love orchids. He asks her to accompany him to the orchid show, where she seems aroused by the flowers. They walk outside and Charlie kisses her; she begins undressing. Suddenly, Charlie sits upright in bed when Donald knocks on the door: the trip to the orchid show was a fantasy.
The next day, Charlie returns to the diner. The waitress remembers him and talks to him about orchids. Charlie keeps spouting off these random, trivial facts about orchids as she politely nods and smiles. He asks her to go with him to the orchid show and her demeanor changes; Charlie realizes she was just being polite and he sits there uncomfortably as the waitress whispers about him to a co-worker.
Charlie goes to the orchid show, alone. As he wanders around, Susan voice-overs about the different varieties of orchids. The voice over shifts to Charlie, who seems to be talking about the different varieties of women.
Susan and Laroche are again riding in the white van. Laroche tells her about the nursery he and his wife now ex-wife opened.
Charlie is again on the set of Being John Malkovich. Donald is talking to a woman, whos flirting right back with him. Charlie asks his brother not to hit on the crew members. She was hitting on me, he replies. Donald asks Charlie for some advice on his script, a thriller about a cop with multiple personality disorder whos serial killer personality kidnaps a woman who also happens to be another personality of the cop.
Charlie, Donald and the make-up girl, Caroline, are at a party together. Charlie looks miserable while Donald and Caroline seem to be having a great time. Donald mentions that Amelia hasnt been around much lately, when in she walks with a dumpy, geeky guy she introduces as David.
Charlie says the script is a disaster. He walks aimlessly around his bedroom, trying to find inspiration for the start of the movie. His ramblings about evolution inspire him and he recites into a recorder the early scene about the evolution of the world. This is great, this is the break-through Ive been waiting for.
Laroche watches television with his father. The phone rings; its Susan. She asks him what happened to the nursery nine years earlier.
Flashback to Florida, nine years before. Laroche, his wife, mother and uncle all get into the car. Laroche backs out of the driveway and a speeding car immediately slams into the Laroche vehicle. Laroches front teeth are knocked out in the accident, which claims the lives of his mother and uncle. His wife divorced him shortly after his wife comes out of a two- week-long coma. Susan tells him that if shed nearly died, she also would divorce her husband. Because its like a free pass, she explains.
In New York, Susan has dinner with Valerie, the executive who hired Charlie to adapt the book. Valerie tells Susan that her book is brilliant and theyd like to buy the screenplay rights. Susan is giddy. Ive never written a screenplay before, she tells Valerie. Oh, dont worry about it, Valerie replies. We have screenwriters.
Charlie is avoiding Valeries calls. Its been thirteen weeks since his meeting with Valerie and hes no closer to finishing the screenplay than he was on day one. He visits his agent and admits he has no idea what hes doing. He begs the agent to get him out of the deal, but is told its too late to pull out of the project and that it would be a terrible career move.
Later, Donald continues to sing the praises of McKees seminar.
Susan calls Laroche again. She sounds sad and lonely. Laroche tells her that hes discovered the Internet and Net porn and that hes launched a porn-for-pay site. Susan tells Laroche that she still hasnt seen a ghost orchid and Laroche agrees to take her out the next day.
3:30 a.m. Charlie still isnt making any progress on the script. Charlie begins conversing with Susans author picture on the book jacket he imagines that shes talking to him and she tells him, Just whittle it down. Focus on the story; focus on the thing you care passionately about. The next day, Charlie begins dictating into the tape recorder, telling the story from Susans perspective.
Charlie runs out to a restaurant to pick up a to-go order. While waiting at the counter for his food, he sees Valerie seated in the restaurant. He tries to hide from her, but she sees him and invites him to join her and her guest Susan Orlean. Charlie makes a bunch of excuses about how meeting Susan would interfere with telling her story and bolts from the restaurant, leaving his food behind.
Charlie, still trying to work on the script, is interrupted by a happy Donald, whos own screenplay, The 3, is now complete. Charlie rather half- heartedly agrees to show it to his agent. Reading over his own work, Charlie suddenly realizes that hes inserted himself into his screenplay. I suck, he tells his brother. Charlie decides that he has to meet Susan, certain that this meeting will bring him the closure and inspiration he needs to complete the script. Donald tells him that McKee will be in New York, too, holding a seminar and encourages Charlie to check it out.
Susan and Laroche are riding in the van, again in Florida. Susan tells him about the movie deal and Laroche wonders wholl play him. He tells her that he would do a great job portraying himself. The two enter the swamp and Laroche soon gets them lost. As they wander about, Susans demeanor changes, as if the romanticism of her relationship with Laroche and the rare ghost orchid has evaporated. Life seems to be full of things like the ghost orchid: out of reach, she tells him. A disgusted Laroche yells at her, calling her a leech and a spoiled bitch. He stomps off and the camera pans to reveal the van on the other side of some nearby trees.
Three years later: Charlie emerges from the subway and crosses the street to Susan Orleans building. He gets in the elevator and pushes the button for her floor, but cant get off the elevator when the doors open. Instead, Susan gets on the elevator, her back to Charlie as the elevator descends. Charlie struggles to say something to her, but cant bring himself to talk to Susan. She gets off the elevator without the two of them ever exchanging a word.
Back at his hotel, Charlie receives a call from his agent. Valerie is breathing down my neck, the agent says. He also tells Charlie that Donalds schizophrenic serial killer script is the best script Ive read all year, and suggests Charlie get Donald to help him with the adaptation of The Orchid Thief.
A frustrated Charlie ends up at Bob McKees scriptwriting seminar. By way of Charlies internal monologue, we hear him question his attendance there. He decides to leave, just in time to hear McKee spout off against the use of voiceovers. Charlie sits back down.
Later in the seminar, Charlie asks for advice about his script, telling McKee that nothing happens. McKee yells at him and tells him that things happen in the real world, thus making it impossible to have a story in which nothing happens.
After the seminar, Charlie approaches McKee and they go out for a drink McKee advises Charlie to go back and put the drama into his script, telling him that the characters must change and the change must come from them. McKee asks Charlie if hes taken the seminar before and Charlie admits that his twin brother has. McKee responds that Casablanca was written by twin brothers.
That revelation sends Charlie back to his hotel to call Donald, who agrees to fly to New York and help his brother. After he arrives, Donald reads the script and book and tells Charlie that meeting Susan is paramount to finishing the adaptation. Donald and Charlie agree that Donald will pose as Charlie and meet Susan.
Donald, posing as Charlie, sits in Susans office. Donald asks if Susan has kept in touch with Laroche, saying he thought there was an undercurrent of attraction in the book. Susan tells him that her relationship with Laroche was purely one between a journalist and her subject.
Back at the hotel, Donald tells his brother that Susan was lying and spies on her with a pair of binoculars (the hotel being right across the street from her office or possibly home, its really not clear). Susan is making a phone call and begins crying as soon as she hangs up. He sees her make flight arrangements on her computer, flying to Miami the next day.
Donald checks out Laroches porn site and tells his brother that theyre going to Florida the next day, too. It seems theres a picture of a topless Susan Orlean on the site.
Susans voiceover as the scene changes to Florida, three years earlier. Susan admits that when she and Laroche were in the swamp, the found a ghost orchid. It just a flower, she tells him. Laroche tells her that he discovered the real reason that the Seminoles were so interested in the ghost orchid: It yields a type of drug which they used to use in ceremonies and now just use to get high. He offers to extract it for her and sends a packet to her hotel room there in Florida. Susan eventually snorts some of the green dust and soon finds herself transfixed by the simple act of brushing her teeth or looking at her toes. Laroche calls to check on her. They end up talking on the phone all night and eventually make love in his van.
Florida, three years later. Laroche picks up Sussan at the airport, still driving the white van. Charlie and Donald follow them in a rental car. They pull up at Laroches house and the Kaufmans park across the street. Its dark by now and Donald decides he wants to get a closer look. Charlie tells him to stay, that hell do it.
Charlie walks around to the back of the house and finds a hothouse full of ghost orchids. He looks in the window and sees Susan and Laroche. Susan snorts some orchid dust and the pair begin to make love. Laroche sees Charlie outside the window and runs after him, even though Laroche is naked. Laroche catches Charlie and forces him into the house, where Susan recognizes him as the screenwriter. This fact instantly gets Laroches attention and he tries to pitch Charlie to cast him as himself in the movie.
Are you going to write this in your screenplay? Susan asks Charlie. I dont know what this is, Charlie tells her. Susan tells Laroche, Hes lying. We have to kill him.
A concerned Donald checks on his brother and ends up on the floorboard of the backseat while Charlie, with Susan holding a gun on him, follows Laroche in his van to the swamp. The trio exit the vehicles, but before Susan or Laroche can kill Charlie, Donald slams the car door into Susan and he and Charlie run into the swamp. A frantic Susan and Laroche follow, but dont find them.
Charlie and Donald, hiding behind a log, have a heart-to-heart talk about their lives and their differences. Donald tells his brother, Its not who loves you that defines you; its who you love. They fall asleep, eventually.
When they wake up, they leave the swamp and dont see the van. They start to go when Susan pulls up in the van, screaming for John. Donald ends up shot and he and Charlie get in the car and start to make good their escape. Donald is giddy about the experience which changes dramatically when their car slams into a park ranger truck. Donald is ejected from the car; his brother runs over and tells him to wake up. Donald opens his eyes, just for a moment or two, and then dies. Charlie screams for help, but the only people around are Susan and Laroche.
The pair chase Charlie back into the swamp and eventually trap him. Charlie sees an alligator enter the water as Laroche prepares to shoot Charlie. Suddenly, the alligator grabs Laroche. Susan screams as the alligator thrashes and Laroche is pulled underwater. Susan rushes to Laroche, but hes already dead. She holds him and cries, I want my life back. Charlie tells her shes a pathetic drug addict.
Soon after, Charlie watches as emergency personnel work the crime scene. He calls his mother to tell her about Donald, but finds that he can do little more than cry.
Back in California, Charlie is a shallow reflection of the pathetic man he used to be. He eats alone and stares at the desk where Donald used to work. Back at his typewriter, Charlie transcribes the conversation he and Donald had in the swamp.
Charlie goes to lunch with Amelia and he tells her how much he misses Donald. The script, he says, is almost finished. As they walk after lunch, Amelia tells him about her trip to Prague with David and admits that she thought about Charlie while she was there. They look at each other and Charlie kisses her. Amelia smiles, then frowns slightly and asks Charlie why hes doing that now.
I love you, he tells her.
I should go, Amelia says. She walks away, then stops and turns back to Charlie. I love you, too, you know. They smile at each other and Amelia leaves.
Charlies internal monlogue resumes as he climbs in his car, as he decides to end the movie with Charlie getting in his car and driving home, his life filled, for the first time, with hope.
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