Saturday, June 6, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Movie quotes:
Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman): That was good, Tom.
Tom (Daniel London): Yeah?
Caden: Yeah.
Tom: I was trying something different. I was…crashing differently – ambivalently.

Caden: I want to ask you, how old are kids when they start to write?
Madeleine (Hope Davis): Listen, there’s an absolutely brilliant novel written by a four year old.
Caden: Really?
Madeleine: ‘Little Winky’ by Horace Azpiazu.
Caden: It’s cute.
Madeleine: Oh, hardly. Little Winky is a virulent anti-Semite. The story follows his initiation into the Klan, his immersion in the pornographic snuff industry, and his ultimate degradation at the hands of a black ex-convict named Eric Washington Jackson Jones Johnson.
Caden: Written by a four year old.
Madeleine: Jefferson.
Caden: Wow. Written by a four year old.
Madeleine: Well, Azpiazu killed himself when he was five.
Caden: Why did he kill himself?
Madeleine: I don’t know, why did you?
Caden: What?
Madeleine: I said, ‘Why would you?’

Caden: You’re weirdly close to what I’d visualized for this character.
Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest): Glad to be weirdly close.

"Dear diary, I'm afraid I'm gravely ill. It is perhaps times like these that one reflects on things past. An article of clothing from when I was young. A green jacket. I walk with my father. A game we once played. Pretend we're fairies. I'm a girl fairy. My name is Laura Lee. And you're a boy fairy. Your name is Tita Lee. Pretend, when we're fairies we fight each other, and I say "Stop hitting me I'll die!" And you hit me again and I say, "Now I have to die." And then you say, "But I'll miss you." And I say, "But I have to. And you'll have to wait a million years to see me again. And I'll be put in a box, and all I'll need is a tiny glass of water and lots of tiny pieces of pizza and the box will have wings like an airplane." And you'll ask, "Where will it take you?" "Home." I say."
- Olive (Robin Weigert)

At a glance:
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a dense, thought-provoking, sometimes comical, sometimes puzzling examination of a middle aged playwright battling with self-worth, love and art

Our review (with spoilers):
Playwright Caden Cotard's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) productions receive rave reviews, but they are safe copies of other people’s inspirations. At the same time, his relationship with partner Adele (Catherine Keener) is ending, and his body is deteriorating. Prompted by winning a prestigious award, and fighting to find meaning in his life, he begins a new project where he will demand honesty from himself and his actors. The project takes some time to come to fruition – a lot of time – years, in fact, and it is never really completed. This play about life is life, in fact – even though it is taking place on a huge warehouse-sized set and is populated with lookalikes playing the parts of each other.

For a good part of Synecdoche, I thought I was viewing a dream or alternative reality. It took a while for me to realize (or assume, anyway) that the story we were seeing was happening, albeit with chunks removed. As Caden ages, the speed at which his life passes feels very much like the way my life seems to pass too quickly now, where months and years go by in blocks that seem to be over and to fade away almost immediately. Many of us are driven to excel, or at least to cope, and that struggle leaves little time to revel in good memories from the past, or sometimes to even make the right decisions for the future.

Kaufman writes from the depths of his imagination, and here, his first writer/director film, sometimes only he might be able to follow the train of thought he is taking. It is possible that his material is improved, or at least more accessible, when forced through the prism of another director. Left to his own devices, we get unadulterated, imaginative Kaufman in all his murky glory. Despite the nightmarish fantasy, his story is grounded by moments of pure truth. For example, he absolutely nails the detached way that doctors treat patients. He has a tremendous feel for the way people in relationships speak to each other, or perhaps for the things that they think about each other. He transforms fear of living and fear of failing into tangible, in-your-face nightmarish images of a city filled with garbage and people filled with despair.

Synecdoche isn’t totally successful. The overall feeling of despair weighed me down. The final 20 minutes is almost all exposition that provides plenty of thought provocation, but little in the way of a conclusion. If that’s the point, then it is a total success. But no matter, because the film’s true value is its stunning originality and its copious amounts of beautiful Kaufman prose.

It’s also an actor’s film. The last time I saw Samantha Morton, she was a hard-edged, emotion-challenged person in Code 46. Her transformation here is eye-popping. Emily Watson plays Morton’s double to good effect. Tom Noonan is convincing as Caden’s doppelganger – he doesn’t do an imitation; he’s just stalked the guy for 20 years, so who better to play him? Dianne Wiest is effective in a small role. Hoffman is handed a huge assignment here; he is supposed to be the consummate actor, but for some reason I find it difficult to feel empathy for him. Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"So dense, so complex and so downright puzzling that even Kaufman fans may balk at it."
- David Stratton (At the Movies [Australia])

"The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration. It has brilliance, either way: surreal, utterly distinctive, witty, gloomy in the manner that his fans will recognise and adore."
- Peter Bradshaw (Guardian [UK])

"A difficult, maddening and elusive film that’s also intriguing, profound and darkly funny."
- Matt Bochenski (Little White Lies)

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