Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Non-Capsule Semi-Review: Synecdoche, NY

I don't know, you guys. This is a tough one to get a handle on, and I'm not saying that just because it's Charlie Kaufman and his movies usually take some additional viewings to really get to the heart of them. I'd at least gotten a decent handle on Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind after that first screening.

But this movie is tougher. What I can say is that it made me feel terrible. Just awful and wrecked and miserable. Which isn't the slam it might sound like -- if a movie's making me feel something besides bored, and making me feel it so intensely, it's at least doing something right. The plot, such as it is, concerns Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing the latest in a long line of Charlie Kaufman surrogates, who, after his wife leaves him and he's subsequently awarded a Genius Grant, sets out to stage a play that will be an indelible and personal piece of art. So he rents out this caverous warehouse wherein he'll begin the work that will last the rest of his life, such as it is: a decades-spanning recreation of not only his life, but the lives of everyone around him. It's confusing and has that reality-within-reality-within-reality thing Kaufman loves, but I don't think it matters very much because this is easily the least plot-centered movie he's ever done.

Because the movie itself is about PSH's character, Caden, obsessing on himself. Calling it akin to viewing one's own life from the vantage point of up one's own ass doesn't sound very charitable, but I don't mean it as a slam. I should probably say right now that I think Synecdoche is a good movie, I'm just wrestling with whether it was a great one. The whole movie is about self-obsession which, when we're talking about a character who hates himself as much as Caden does, means two solid hours of misery. Awesome. The fact that this self-obsession is the whole point of the movie doesn't completely absolve it from charges of impenetrability and lack of focus, but it is a bit of a mitigating factor. Even the funnier parts in the first hour -- and there are many very funny moments to enjoy -- share a "well, aren't we so dry and clever" self-congratulation. The wordplay between PSH and Catherine Keener, for example, or Hope Davis's entire character arc, or Samantha Morton's oh-so-symbolic burning house.

The meanderings and the indulgences of the film do end up coming together (for the most part) in the final half-hour, in a climax that I found emotionally devestating but I'm not sure how many other people will. And honestly, I wonder of I'd have had any patience for it at all if my own life were in a different emotional space. But I can't really know that because, try as I might, I can't ever entirely escape my own self and truly see things as another person. Which, hey, is one of the points the movie makes. How about that.

It's an admirable movie, with some very fine performances. I kind of feel bad for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Not his character, but the actor himself. This movie really does represent the fourth and most overt (and please let it be final) attempt by Charlie Kaufman to dare the audience to not to completely despise him. He's had surrogate central characters in his four biggest movies now (we've all agreed to pretend Human Nature never happened, right?), each one repellant in his own way. Craig Schwartz was selfish and morally bankrupt. Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation was socially inept and neurotic. Joel Barrish was weak and boring and afraid. But Caden Cotard is just beyond the limits. Whiny, sad, lumpy, diseased, needy, miserable, not fun, and he never once gets beyond it or grows past it. So, hey, who better to play him that Phillip Seymour Hoffman? And while that may be true, that had to hurt PSH on some level to realize that.

I should also make special note of a trio of superb supporting performances. Samantha Morton is absolutely stellar in a role that starts out all cleavage and inexplicable attraction and gets more beautiful, and more heartbreaking, the longer the movie goes. But even in her old-lady makeup, she's the one spark of light in the whole movie. Michelle Williams has become a really accomplished actress, able to convey so much with really tiny gestures and inflections. Past a certain point in the movie, you don't know what her character is still doing there, at least in practical terms, but then she does these self-conciously actorly things that remind you why her character (a self-conscious actor) would stick around. And while Dianne Weist's contribution is more through her presence, and the calming/authoritative influence of her voice, I can harly imagine who could have played that part better.

So...don't see this movie on my recommendation. I don't want to be blamed for you either spending the rest of the day in a terrible funk or else feeling absolutely nothing and thus wasting two hours on miserablist self-indulgence (which, even if you think it's a good movie, it pretty much is). But if too few films this year have made you feel anything at all, good or bad, and you're looking for something to stick you in the gut and remind you of the lonely, cavernous warehouses that are our lives -- to be a tangible representation of the crushing weight of loneliness and opportunities wasted -- then by all means. Have a blast.

1 comment:

JA said...


I ought to just leave it at that, NAG, but I will say a little more even though all you said to mine was "I am going to commit suicide now." Humph.

I think you're a little tough on PSH's character; I do think he is shown to have some redeemable qualities here and there. He obviously loves his first daughter Olive very much (although yeah that might be a bit undermined by his indifference to his later children). And while he does fuck up everything with Hazel, I think his affection for her is shown to be very genuine and true. And his love for Adele, too. He's just got all his issues. His many many smothering-all-else issues. But he's got some good stuff buried in there too, which is why I found the never-truly-consummated romance between him and Hazel so tragic and real and lovely and horrible - if Caden were completely awful I'd have been happy that Hazel mostly escaped him.