Cancer, any oncologist will tell you, is just life without a script to follow. That's a morbid image for a video review, but musings on metastasis are only natural after watching Adaptation, a fertility-to-fatality meta-movie written by ''Being John Malkovich'' scribe Charlie Kaufman about the difficulties inherent in being ''Being John Malkovich'' scribe Charlie Kaufman. It gets better: Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) agrees to write a screenplay based on ''The Orchid Thief,'' a real, nonfiction book by real, nonfictitious writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). In his sweaty quest to simply ''let the movie exist'' (as opposed to making it ''Hollywood''), the neurotic, narcissistic Kaufman makes his own struggle to adapt the book the centerpiece of his screenplay -- even as his twin brother, Donald (who may or may not represent Kaufman's inner hack), tempts him to embrace B-picture oblivion.
''Adaptation'' is perhaps the most engaging writing exercise ever conceived, but it's still an exercise. (This becomes apparent in the imploding -- if clever -- third act.) Cage and Streep are luminous, but only Oscar winner Chris Cooper (as Orlean's eccentric, orchid-hunting subject, John Laroche) lets his character simply exist.