AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Spike Jonze (Dir)
Release Date:   6 Dec 2002
Duration (in mins):  112 or 114
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Cast: Nicolas Cage  (Charlie Kaufman)
  Tilda Swinton  (Valerie [Thomas])
  Meryl Streep  (Susan Orlean)

Summary: In contemporary Los Angeles, California, obsessively insecure screenwriter Charlie Kaufman considers himself fat, ugly and loveless. In 1998, after being thrown off the set of Being John Malkovich , even though he wrote the screenplay, Charlie humbly reviews his origins from the earth’s evolution to his birth. Later, at a contemporary Los Angeles café, Charlie meets studio executive Valerie Thomas, who hires him to develop author Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. Charlie anxiously expounds on his belief that the film should mirror the conceit of the book and focus on flowers, rather than degrade into a “Hollywood” formula movie involving guns, car chases and characters learning profound life lessons. In New York, three years prior to this meeting, Susan Orlean writes the first draft of an article for The New Yorker magazine, “The Orchid Thief” which was the basis for her book. Susan describes John Laroche, a brilliant, eccentric and passionate horticulturist who two years earlier worked with Seminole Indians to steal rare orchids from the Fakahatchee State Preserve in Florida. John and three Indians, including Matthew Osceola and Russell, waded through swamps to obtain a “ghost” orchid and numerous other protected plant specimens, then tried to use John’s copious knowledge about related court cases to dissuade a sheriff from arresting them. In contemporary Los Angeles, Charlie returns home to learn that his unemployed twin brother Donald has decided to become a screenwriter. Charlie is offended by Donald’s enthusiastic but formulaic ideas about screenwriting. However, later that night, Charlie’s own attempts to write are foiled by his thoughts about food. Years earlier, Susan is also at work writing about the history of orchid hunters, many of whom died during expeditions. Susan surmises that John is as devoted to the inherent danger of orchid hunting as he is to the flowers themselves. She attends John’s court trial following his encounter in the preserve, after which he accepts her proposal to write an article about him. During her first interview with John in his filthy van, he explains his plan to cultivate the ghost orchid to prevent future poaching. Susan takes notes about his “delusions of grandeur.” In present day Los Angeles, Charlie reads Susan’s book following a failed romance with Amelia Savan, a violinist whom he was too afraid to kiss. His frustration deepens when Donald blithely announces his intention to pitch his screenplay idea the next day. Three years earlier, Susan continues meeting with John. Although she becomes entranced by John’s lofty views about orchids, she belittles him in absentia at a dinner party attended by her husband and several sophisticated friends in New York. However, while writing that night, Susan concedes her longing for a passion as intoxicating as orchid hunting. Charlie also fantasizes about passion as he reads Susan’s book. Donald interrupts one sexual fantasy about a waitress named Alice to discuss the plot of his script. The story, which conflates a murderer, his victim and a policeman into one person, is the kind of crime movie Charlie despises, and he exposes Donald’s flawed logic. Another day, Charlie attends the Santa Barbara Orchid Show alone after Alice evades his clumsy attempt to invite her. There he is inspired by Susan’s book to imagine the elegant orchids as women of all varieties. While Charlie’s insecurity impedes his love life and the Being John Malkovich crew still ignores him, Donald falls in love with Caroline, a make-up artist from the set, and encounters no difficulties in writing his script. Charlie’s struggle finally eases when he is inspired by Charles Darwin’s theories about evolution and adaptation, and interweaves the story of the orchid with John’s and Susan’s narratives. Charlie works feverishly and conceives of opening the film with the evolution of life on earth, to be followed by a scene depicting Susan at work on the book. Susan continues to develop her article around John’s life, and learns what happened nine years earlier when he owned a nursery: John inadvertently causes a car accident, after which he loses his front teeth, his mother and uncle are killed, and his wife spends three weeks in a coma. After her recovery, John’s wife divorces him, and a month later, Hurricane Andrew destroys his nursery. John is then hired to work at the Seminole nursery and longs to create “something amazing” for them. Susan uses John’s sentiment as the subtitle for her 1996 article. Soon after its publication, Valerie buys the film rights to Susan’s unfinished book. Writer’s block continues to plague Charlie, who is pressured by his agent, Marty Bowen, to meet Valerie’s deadline. Although he is inspired anew by Susan’s photograph, his insecurity and self-loathing spur him to refuse Valerie’s offer to introduce him to Susan, and he decides to write himself into his screenplay. When Charlie finally resolves to go to New York to meet Susan, Donald advises him to attend his screen writing mentor Robert McKee’s seminar. While he is on the plane, the closing lines of Susan’s book reveal that when John took her into the swamp to find a ghost orchid, they got lost and she never saw the flower. Although Charlie reaches The New Yorker office, he is too paralyzed by fear even to speak to Susan when she coincidentally boards the elevator with him. In his hotel room that night, Charlie explodes in anger following a telephone call during which Marty praises Donald’s screenplay, and suggests that Charlie seek writing advice from his brother. Terrified by impending failure, Charlie forces himself to attend McKee’s seminar, which he previously disparaged as formulaic. McKee publicly berates Charlie after he admits that he has written a script in which nothing happens. Afterward, McKee privately encourages Charlie to revise his script with characters who experience change and an ending that “wows” the audience. When McKee discovers that Donald and Charlie are brothers, he reminds Charlie that Casablanca ’s brilliant screenplay was written by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. Inspired, Charlie invites Donald to New York to help him with his script. After impersonating Charlie and meeting with Susan, Donald becomes convinced that she had an affair with John. His suspicions are confirmed when he visits John’s new pornographic website and sees a nude picture of Susan. That night, Charlie and Donald use binoculars to spy on Susan, and learn that she has booked a flight to Florida. Unaware of the brothers’ espionage, Susan lies in bed and reflects that she lied to her husband as well as to the readers of her book, about how she was changed three years earlier: During her visit to the swamp, Susan does see a ghost orchid, and is unmoved. John sends her some of the drug extracted from the orchid, which will give Susan the passion she is seeking, admitting that he is cultivating the flower because it can be used to create a ceremonial drug prized by the Seminoles. Susan becomes addicted and she and John become lovers. In the present, Donald and Charlie follow Susan to Miami. At night while Donald waits in the car, Charlie peers through the window of John’s house and sees him and Susan making love and inhaling the orchid drug. When John catches Charlie and Susan recognizes him, she decides to kill him in order to avoid being exposed. John opposes the idea, but follows them in his van to the swamp. Donald, who has been hiding in the car’s back seat, prevents Susan from shooting Charlie by opening the back door and knocking her down. As the brothers hide in the swamp, while John and Susan search for them in vain, Charlie gains a new appreciation of his brother. The next morning, when the brothers try to slip away, John shoots and wounds Donald. He and Charlie escape in their car but are hit by a ranger’s truck. The impact propels Donald through the windshield to his death, but Charlie is saved by the driver’s side airbag. Susan and John then chase Charlie back into the swamp, where John is mauled to death by an alligator before he can fire at Charlie. Susan spits insults at Charlie that expose his worst fears about himself, while cradling her dead lover in her arms. After police arrive on the scene, Charlie calls his mother with the tragic news. He returns to Los Angeles and incorporates the Florida events into his script, including the guns, car chases and characters learning profound life lessons. Charlie later meets Amelia for coffee, and finally admits his love for her. Although she reminds him that she is involved with someone else, Amelia returns his affection, then leaves. Charlie decides to end the script with this encounter with Amelia, which has filled him with hope, and he exits the parking garage onto Sunset Boulevard. The flowers in a planter on the street open and close with the passing days and nights. 

Distribution Company: Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Intermedia Films
Production Company: Magnet/Clinica Estetico Productions

Director: Spike Jonze (Dir)
  Thomas Patrick Smith (1st asst dir)
  Brian O'Kelley (2d asst dir)
  Gregory J. Smith (2d 2d asst dir)
  Dan Bradley (2d unit dir)
  Nick Satriano (2d unit, 1st asst dir)
  Dave Riebel (2d unit, 2d asst dir)
  Matthew D. Smith (2d unit, 2d asst dir)
Producer: Edward Saxon (Prod)
  Vincent Landay (Prod)
  Jonathan Demme (Prod)
  Charlie Kaufman (Exec prod)
  Peter Saraf (Exec prod)
Writer: Charlie Kaufman (Scr)
  Donald Kaufman (Scr)

Subject Major: Authors
  Motion picture screenwriters
Subject Minor: Alligators
  William Arnold
  Attempted murder
  Automobile accidents
  Bees and wasps
  Being John Malkovich (Film)
  Charles Darwin
  Death by animals
  Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park (FL)
  Flower shows
  Impersonation and imposture
  Los Angeles (CA)
  Love affairs
  Augustus Margary
  Miami (FL)
  Motion picture crews
  New York City
  The New Yorker (Magazine)
  Nurseries (Horticulture)
  Pornography and pornographers
  Santa Barbara (CA)
  Seminole Indians

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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