Sunday, December 14, 2008

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Synecdoche, New York"

Second in an occasional series. Note: "highly-anticipated" in this context means "movies I've anticipated for a long time," not "I believe you, the reader of my blog, have been waiting with bated breath for me to write about this film."

Title of movie: Synecdoche, New York

Reasons for anticipation
: I seem like the sort of person who would like Charlie Kaufman movies, right? Indeed, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was my favorite movie of 2004--and four and a half years is a long time to wait for a follow-up! And learning that Synecdoche, New York centered on a playwright/director sent my anticipation up to a fever pitch.
My verdict:
It definitely feels like a Charlie Kaufman movie. And yet: I want the old Charlie Kaufman back.

Explanation: Synecdoche, New York feels like the work of a man gripped by fear, grief, and a sense that time is running out--as if Charlie Kaufman had actually had a twin brother named Donald who died in a freak accident, and this death triggered in Charlie a sadness and a paranoia that spilled over into the script he was writing. The most ambitious of Kaufman's movies by a long shot, it is also the bleakest.

Kaufman's work has always had a sense of comic miserablism to it--I mean, Adaptation begins with Charlie's voice-over about being a fat, bald, incompetent loser. But at the same time, the movies were so wacky and original that they couldn't be anything other than life-affirming: watching such a creative mind at work, you felt invigorated, and thrilled that Hollywood could still surprise you. The movies were always delightful, and Eternal Sunshine was more than that--it was profound.

Synecdoche, New York certainly aspires to profundity, but it's lost the sense of delight. It follows its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard, for about forty years of "one bad thing after another." The only good thing that happens to him--he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant--turns out to be a curse in disguise, as he feels he must prove himself worthy of the grant, and spends the rest of his life conceiving and rehearsing a massive theater piece that never opens. Rather than engaging with life, he becomes lost in the simulacrum/synecdoche world that he has created--building an exact replica of New York City inside a New York warehouse. The last part of the movie is a blur of deaths and funerals both real and re-enacted.

Where the earlier movies had John Cusack or Nicolas Cage making themselves look schlubby to play Kaufman's heroes, Synecdoche casts Philip Seymour Hoffman, probably the schlubbiest actor working today, as Caden. He gives a fearless performance, but he's maybe too passive in the role--not displaying enough of the mad-genius ambition that propels Caden to create such a massive work of art. Catherine Keener, who was so sparky and vibrant in Being John Malkovich, plays Caden's first wife as a glum-faced shrew with awful hair.

Brightening things up a bit is Samantha Morton, giving a very charming performance as the guileless box-office girl Hazel. And in a brilliant bit of doubling, Emily Watson plays the actress who plays Hazel in the play-within-the-movie. Hope Davis, in a small role as Caden's therapist, seems to have come from another, less dour Kaufman movie--she'd fit in with the mad scientists of Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine.

For me, the scene that encapsulates Synecdoche, New York (it's even on the movie poster above) shows Caden, late at night, working on his magnum opus. He has hired thousands of actors and now needs to tell them what their roles are, so he writes short scenarios on pieces of paper and distributes them to his cast the next morning. As the camera pans over the slips of paper, which cover the floor of the warehouse as far as the eye can see, we note that every scenario is sad and depressing: "You were raped last night." "You just lost your job." Thousands of papers, and not a happy one in the bunch.

If the movie took a skeptical attitude toward Caden's seeming belief that only unhappy situations can make for great art, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But because the movie, instead, reinforces the idea that depression = genius and genius = depression, my entire belief system rebels against it. People have called Synecdoche, New York a profound commentary on what it means to be an artist--but my God, if being an artist was always like that, who would ever choose to become one?

One could see parallels between Kaufman's life and his protagonist's: like Caden, Kaufman has been awarded a coveted honor, and his first work of art after he won the prize is deliberately big and ambitious--perhaps an attempt to prove himself worthy. So let me just say: Charlie, don't be so insecure; you richly deserved that Oscar for Eternal Sunshine. But you won't deserve any more Oscars if you spend the rest of your life self-consciously trying to make Great Art, at the expense of the light and witty touch that is the reason we came to love you in the first place.

Other observations:
  • I may actually end up cheering for Charlie at the Oscars again this year--not for the Synecdoche script, but for its song "Little Person"--lyrics by Kaufman and haunting piano-ballad music by Jon Brion. I hope it gets nominated, since it's definitely one of the better movie-songs recently. Go listen to it on the movie's Facebook page.
  • As I mentioned, this movie has few laughs for a Kaufman film, and even fewer if you are not familiar with the theater. When I went to see it with a theatrical friend, we were the only ones in the cinema laughing at lines like "My play has 567 lighting cues--of course we're not ready!"
  • I remarked to my friend upon exiting the cinema that "this may just be the first absurdist movie I have ever seen." I mean this both in the sense of philosophical absurdism, and Theater of the Absurd. Kaufman plays around with time and identity and existence in an absurdist way--even the first scene seems to take place on just one morning, but if you pay attention to the clues, three months go by during it. At any rate, there's plenty of fodder here for philosophizing, theorizing, and writing essays; and first-time director Kaufman handles the dreamlike time-is-passing-by-too-fast thing very skillfully. I just feel like the movie is trying so hard to be fodder for philosophy (Roger Ebert even asserts that Caden's life is a true representation of every human life, which might be the gloomiest thing I have ever heard) that you can see the strain, and it's not pretty.

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