Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

This is Charlie Kauffman at his most bizarre. This is saying something considering he is the man that penned Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation. But this is also his most serious, and one of the most touching. In fact, it's my favorite behind Eternal Sunshine. This is also his directorial debut, and it seems he struggles some times under the weight of the script. Despite some flaws, Synecdoche is a pretty remarkable film.

First, we need to clear the air about the name. It's a play on words. The movie takes place in Schenectady, New York, but the term Synecdoche means to use a part of something as a representation as the whole (like saying 'sail' to represent a ship). This makes sense later on in the movie.

Synecdoche is a movie of essentially two parts. It stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director struggling (not very hard, though) to keep his family together. This includes his feelings of inferiority in the face of his artistic wife (Catherine Keener). The movie really gets going, however, after his entire life crumbles, and he receives a MacArthur grant. Armed with his new found money he starts production on the largest play ever conceived- recreating New York in a warehouse (hence the name). This takes a turn for the bizarre when he hires what balloons to thousands of actors to live out their daily (yet scripted) lives in this microcosm. And he does this for decades, with it growing bigger and bigger all the time.

Besides the play the movie deals with the women in his life. Clearly Caden is too narcissistic to truly connect with anyone, whether it's his first wife or daughter, his second marriage to one of his actresses (Michelle Williams), or his true love and long time assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton). These relationships are all played out in his real life, and by the actors that portray each of them in his play. In true Kaufman fashion, he has the real people and the their actors sharing many of the scenes in the second half.

The movie, though completely open to limitless interpretations, seemed to be about Caden's descent in full blown self-indulgence. He was struck by an illness that slowly rendered his motor skills inactive (whether this actually was happening or was just in his head, who knows). Every romantic encounter foundered, and his grand work (again, who knows if any of it actually happened) crushed him. Despite its grandiose nature and ideas, the movie really just seemed to be about an extremely lonely and socially inept man, hiding behind the director's chair of real life.

This movie just continues to enhance my adoration of Hoffman. He can play everything, from the flamboyant arrogance of Capote, to the genuine self-loathing of Synecdoche. The rest of the cast was wonderfully bizarre, each portraying their own unique oddities. The problem with this movie is that it dragged a little bit. I can see why Kaufman would want to direct it himself, probably only the writer of this script could visualize it. Unfortunately it drags in several spots, and over two hours is a long time to barely hang on to what's happening. I think the entire ending could have been left off.

This can be a difficult movie to watch, but there are parts that make it absolutely magical. The characters are fantastic, and there are some hilarious scenes balance with utterly depressing ones. It's filled with the a self-deprecating sort of humor, exemplified with Hazel buying a house while it's on fire, and living in it for another few decades. If you liked his previous movies I strongly recommend checking this one out. Besides, in an interview with Kaufman, he said that there is no wrong way to interpret this movie. See? No pressure.


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