Friday, November 7, 2008

Synecdoche, New York


It was just ten years ago that Philip Seymour Hoffman was making his face known as a capable supporting actor in films like Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski. Now he's charting a path as an award winning thesp headlining movies with audacious acting choices like a neo-Dustin Hoffman. But wait, Charlie Kaufman wasn't even a blip on the radar screen until 1999 and Being John Malkovich (unless you paid attention to the writers of obscure television shows like The Dana Carvey Show) demonstrated his uncanny grasp on the thin veneer of absurdity that coats modern existence. Synecdoche, New York is a film you need to see before you die. Not before you die die. But like in the last couple of hours of your life.
Synecdoche, New York is a downer make no mistake. Also Synecdoche, New York is one of the most original films you will ever see. A divisive film that will win acolytes and harsh critics in one swoop. Intelligent literate types will find it pretentious and pleonastic, but movie mavens will ravish this celluloid candy for its mastery of the medium.
What debut director Kaufman, whose other writing credits include Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has accomplished is no less than the Death of a Salesman of cinema, a one of a kind excursion into the realm of Charliethink that charts a setting to a land where movie dreams are turned on their head. Actually the style resembles Thorton Wilder's Our Town more than Arthur Miller. You get the feeling that as a kid Kaufman was bullied a lot, although compared to Todd Solondz he got off easy.
Synecdoche, New York (if you can say it, you can't necessarily spell it) follows the career path of dramatist Caden Cotard (Hoffman) as he simultaneously wins a MacArthur Grant and loses his wife (Catherine Keener as Adele Lack) herself an artist on the rise whose miniature paintings have become a sensation in Berlin. Cotard decides to use his winnings to produce a play where he recreates New York City in a giant warehouse.
Reality merges with surrealism as we meet a woman, Hazel (Samantha Morton), whose house is always on fire. Cotard has the hots for her but shifts his attention to his lead actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), even marrying her but not before she subserviently dyes her hair the color of Hazel's and bears a child just like Adele.
Have we even gotten to the stalker (Tom Noonan) that Cotard casts as himself in his play or his weird therapist (Hope Davis) who wears shoes so tight they cause her feet to swell? Is this a good time to mention the three colors of shit (green, black, grey) that Synecdoche, New York displays like the colors of a flag? Eventually the play has been in rehearsal for over 15 years and Cotard has substituted Emily Watson for Morton, and Dianne Wiest has replaced Noonan and we haven't even gotten to Cotard's first daughter and her mentor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who are more German than New York.
As bizarre as it may sound, it's only more so on screen yet Kaufman keeps the proceedings going at full speed, with most scenes lasting less than a minute and the following scene seemingly years afterwards.
Synecdoche, New York will be embraced by critics and effete movie snobs and shunned by your average Joes. Somehow you get the feeling that that's just the way Kaufman planned the whole thing.

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