Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton

If you've committed to sitting down and watching Synecdoche, you hopefully are already somewhat familiar with what to expect from a Kaufman project. His films have garnered a lot of critical praise, but they are a few yards off the beaten path of popular consumption.
That being said, if you can appreciate the ouroborosic nature of 2002's Adaptation, how Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar for his screenplay and gave equal credit to his ficticious brother Donald, then you maybe appreciate the blurred reality in which Kaufman exists. His strengths lie in wrapping a character in itself, folding it over and over again until neither the viewer or the character knows where it begins or ends.

Synecdoche marks Kaufman's directorial debut, which is a bold move, since in many ways Synecdoche is Kaufman's most ambitious script. With his previous projects, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kaufman certainly benefited from allying himself with directors of equally unique taste and ability. Malkovich and Adaptation were both helmed by Spike Jonze, while Eternal Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry, both of whom cut their teeth directing music videos for some of music's most visually and aurally distinct artists. Considering Kaufman's effervescent self-doubt, his willingness to take over the director's duties is quite a coup.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a depressed, sick, self-hating but genius playwright who finds professional success while watching his personal life turn to dust. His disfunctional marriage ends (sort of) and his daughter becomes a tattooed prostitute in Berlin. Perhaps art is born of pain, (or so the film suggests) because Caden is given a prestigious MacArthur grant. Caden takes the opportunity to begin creating a theater piece of such honesty and pain that as his personal life continues to confuse and depress him, his theater piece becomes larger and larger. It becomes a place for him to reflect, control and manipulate as more and more of his real-life experiences find their way into his project. The apparently limitless funds available to Caden because of the MacArthur grant allow him to build a virtual copy of New York City inside an impossibly large warehouse which he populates with an army of actors, whom he issues direction to as he walks the streets of his created city, followed by an actor portraying himself who is giving orders to actors playing actor's in Caden's production.

Get it?

The spinning wheel of ideas has become Kaufman's trademark, taking recognizable elements and blending them together so tightly that audiences are forced to sit back and experience, rather than try and discern reality from fantasy. Synecdoche takes this to new levels, even for Kaufman, which may be the film's downfall.

With Kaufman's other films the restraint has been a director who perhaps shared Kaufman's vision, but still had to reconcile Kaufman's ideas with his own. When Kaufman is allowed to play on his own one starts to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes. Philip Seymour Hoffman does an (of course) brilliant job putting a lot behind Caden's mask and letting him carry all of the weight that Kaufman can (and can not) express. As he is the only real constant in this film we are made to experience the world through his (Kaufman's) eyes. As with many of Kaufman's projects, he enjoys seeing how far an idea will go, following it through to it's conclusion. In the case of Synecdoche it ends with Caden living in a closet, taking direction from an actor portraying him and realizing that riots have killed virtually all of his ensemble cast. Only at the last moment is there a glimmer of sunlight as Caden considers the possibility of something else.

While this is certainly not a film for most people, for fans of Charlie Kaufman it is yet another window into the spiderweb of ideas that is the world in which Kaufman inhabits.

Movie Grade: B-

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