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Inside Out:
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Sony)

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Friday, October 24, 2008


Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
(Sony)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

Charlie Kaufman’s new picture is either his 2001, or his Lady in the Water. Several days after seeing it, I’m still not sure where on that epic measuring stick it notches. It has the pleasures and pitfalls of any far-reaching movie/album/book that goes “all the way,” its maker through wearing “kid’s gloves” and ready to give it “everything he’s got.” A risk of great pretension is inevitable in the gambit, and the resultant work typically encourages overrating by its admirers and shrill underrating by detractors. A stubborn wallowing in excessive morose self-pity, the staleness of some of the visual gags, and an incoherent, draggy last third ensure Synecdoche, New York as no Finnegans Wake, but its undeniable heady crackle and persistent curiosity leave no doubt that it’s something more than his Use Your Illusion.

Before he made his name with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman had already established a place in modern American comedy lore with writing positions on cult shows Get a Life and The Dana Carvey Show, and it’s not hard to draw a line from Get a Life’s deranged second season to the indulgent nuttiness of Being John Malkovich. Despite the general fatness and mopiness of his cinematic avatars, from Malkovich’s Craig Schwartz to Adaptation’s Charlie Kaufman, in interviews the real man comes across as well-maintained, alert, and thin, with little balding in sight on his thickly curly-topped head. And yet it’s a neurotically negative self-perception that has served as the launching pad for his uniquely imaginative work. The Adaptation character is sweaty and grotesque, but funny and enlivened (especially when twin brother Donald is around). Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sulks, but is lit from within by a recent romance. Synecdoche’s Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is an uglier beast. First seen frowning in bed, his grievances are legion but his gloominess stems mainly from the fact that he’s dying. Or thinks he is. The hypochondria’s killing him swiftly, regardless.

A theater director in suburban Schenectady, Cotard is helming a successful production of Death of a Salesman and carrying on an innocent flirtation with the theater’s box office attendant, Hazel (Samantha Morton), when we meet him. He’s less fortunate at home, where he pores over obituaries and an exploding sink gashes his face. At therapy, his wife Adele, a painter of miniatures, confesses that she fantasizes about Caden dying. When she offs to Berlin with their young daughter, Olive, Caden becomes unmoored, and sinks into a grotesque fit of anxiety and sickness which manifests itself in the form of pustules, bloody gums, and bloody bowel movements. He is saved by being able to heave himself into a beyond-ambitious, realist “play” (or is it life?), funded by an unexpected MacArthur “Genius” grant and staged in a warehouse in Manhattan. As the project messily evolves, Caden remains haunted by Adele’s new success as a hot-shit art star abroad (he learns from a magazine piece that she only wants to be around “joyous, healthy people” now). At one point Caden rushes to Germany in a vain attempt to save Olive, led into a world of extreme tattoos and stripping by Adele’s dusted friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

It’s at about this point that the plot wafts into near-incomprehensible nonlinearity, folding in on itself and forcing you to doubt everything that’s happened. Lines seem to get blurred beyond repair when Caden hires Sammy (Tom Noonan, the pantyhose-headed psychopath from Manhunter) to play himself in the production, and then learns that Sammy has been following and observing him for years (and proceeds to move in on Hazel). Then there’s something with Emily Watson, and Dianne Wiest, and Caden’s father dies and there’s a big funeral speech that ends with “fuck everybody, amen!”

Is meta-cinema a mode with infinite elasticity, or has Kaufman stretched himself too far, gone too idea-drunk here? It’s not a matter of his needing the corrective hand of a director. Kaufman’s command is generally steady. If nothing else, Synecdoche, as shot by the great Fred Elmes, looks better than the Jonze movies. It’s hard not to miss the anchorage that Eternal Sunshine’s love story provided; the particulars of the multiple themes of death, fatherhood, creativity, and whatever else are difficult to tweeze out of the mad exercise, which often simply feels like Kaufman doing whatever he can do not to bore himself, a careless evacuation of his right brain onto celluloid. And if this is the case, the scenes of overt dramatic heft, like Caden breaking down, George C. Scott-style, at the site of his stripping daughter, are offensively ornamental.

A more charitable view is that the ego of a sick man is messy, and any faithful exploration (that wants to get inside) will be the same. That could excuse any number of bad, faithful interpretations of experience, true; there’s just something more interesting, to me, about Kaufman’s unsparing self-exams than, say, Lodge Kerrigan and Darren Aronofsky’s removed musings on the mentally ill and addicted. If Hoffman has difficulty making a knowable character out of Caden, it’s not because he makes the mistake of playing Kaufman. Caden’s not the latter any more than Josef K, who also ultimately remains a blank or a question mark, is Kafka.

The reference point is apt. Hazel tells Caden she’s reading The Trial, complaining that it’s “too long.” In a Kafkaesque touch, her house is always on fire but never burns down. The gigantic warehouse set of Caden’s play even resembles the desolate Gare d’Orsay from Orson Welles’s 1962 film version. The feeling of living in a nightmare and losing control pervades both, as does a resilient sense of humor. Kafka used to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work aloud, and there’s similar saving-grace funniness to even the blackest of Synecdoche’s horrors.

The movie is ungainly, but to appreciate it one has to swallow the whole purple pill. As inconsistent as it is, it’s still more album than mix tape. “This is a lie. Wall it up,” says Caden to a stagehand, and an aim of Synecdoche is to stubbornly tell the truth as Kaufman sees it. The fun part is that such an eccentric, specific “truth” can have as much insight into mundane anxieties and ambitions as it does.

 

 

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