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Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

* * * *

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton

... WTF?

Okay, I’ll admit it: Charlie Kaufman kind of broke my brain – and I mean that in the best possible way. Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is a film rich with ideas, composed of layer upon layer of detail. As with other films penned by Kaufman, the subject of this one is the relationship of the mind to reality. From the first shot – with the protagonist shown reflected in a mirror – Kaufman sets the film up to be a story of the interior and it just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper inside until finally turning it inside out and exposing all the wheels in motion beneath the surface.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theatre director whose marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter, is failing. They have a young daughter, whom Adele takes with her to Germany where she becomes a much celebrated artist. Caden stays in New York – Adele’s choice, not his – and wins a MacArthur grant which he uses to fund an elaborate and impossible play which he will spend the next few decades putting together, trying to capture the essence of life in general and his own specifically. It’s a play of such grand scale that it takes a warehouse to stage it (not that it’s ever ready for an audience to see) and where eventually the street on which the warehouse is located is recreated including the warehouse, which probably has a smaller version of the set inside including the warehouse and so on like a Russian doll. One of the oppositions that Kaufman sets up is between the artists Caden and Adele. His work keeps getting bigger and bigger, becoming more and more untenable because there is no detail he can stand to leave out. Adele, on the other hand, creates paintings that keep getting smaller and smaller – so small that they can only be viewed with magnifying glasses.

There are many women in Caden’s life, portrayed by some of the best and most underappreciated actresses in film. Aside from Adele, there’s her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who becomes Caden’s arch nemesis, and Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden’s friend and assistant, although that’s putting it far too simply. She loves him, he comes to love her, but their timing is never quite right and they spend most of their lives finding excuses not to be together. There’s also Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in Caden’s grand opus who becomes his second wife and eventually leaves him when forced to confront on a daily basis his feelings for Hazel, which the play goes to great lengths to explore; Tammy (Emily Watson), who plays the stage version of Hazel and becomes romantically involved with Caden, Madeline (Hope Davis), Caden's therapist who is more interested in promoting her books than helping him, and finally Millicent/Ellen (Diane Weist), who essentially usurps Caden, taking over for him as he begins to fade out. His relationships with these women, the way that he tries to understand them and himself through them, the way that he tries to organize the details of all these relationships in a way that explains his life, drives him and his work and, of course, the film.

All this is only the tip of the iceberg, but I don’t know that the intricate workings of the plot can actually be described in such a way as to give a complete and accurate picture. Having said that, though, I should confess that I don’t entirely get what it is that I’ve seen. Coming to the end of the movie, I knew that I had just seen something amazing but I also knew that I would have to see it at least once more before I really started to get a handle on it. At this point I’ve only had the opportunity to see it the once, but I’m looking forward to seeing it again and I can think of no better way to measure the greatness of a movie than by the eagerness one feels to revist it.

As Caden, Hoffman renders his most interesting work to date. Aging about 40 years, weaving in and out of various states of consciousness and being, and acting simultaneously as subject and audience, it would be easy for any actor to be lost in this role and this film but Hoffman manages to keep Caden grounded and present throughout. The performance is as complex and layered as the film itself, a beautifully constructed piece of work which has virtually no comparison. I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on some of the nuances that I surely missed the first time around.


Anonymous said...

I don’t know that the intricate workings of the plot can actually be described in such a way as to give a complete and accurate picture.You said it ... I purposely saw it twice before I wrote about it over at my place, and the second time I saw a lot more, but it actually made it harder to write about.

You've done a good job of unraveling and presenting in a linear way the relationships among the women; I especially like this insight:

the way that he tries to organize the details of all these relationships in a way that explains his life, drives him and his work and, of course, the film.Fine review of a difficult but rewarding film.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, I thought about waiting until I was able to see it a second time before writing about it but there's so much intellectual depth to it that I figured if I waited until I understood it totally and completely I would a) never write about it, and b) never be able to stop writing about it... which I guess would make me Caden.