of Maine

Synecdoche, New York
December 23, 2008, 9:19 pm
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Yes, of Maine is still (not yet) working on the big year-end wrap-up, though it will – despite the glut of (to these ears) Great Albums – be pretty sunshiney, diverse, and hopefully somewhat illuminating.

In the meantime, I’ve seen a few movies. They all had their problems, but some were better than others. Here’s the first one.

Synecdoche, New York (director Charlie Kaufman)

It’s reasonable to guess that Synecdoche is intended to be Kaufman’s magnum opus – after relatively dipping his toes in metaphysics, death, people playing actors playing actors, etc., in previous films (most great: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Kaufman goes pretty whole hog here – but with a mind this obsessive and restlessly conceptual, it’s hard to say for sure.

And those grand designs actually sort of the problem with Synecdoche. It is: phenomenally acted (by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson Samantha Morton (oops), and Michelle Williams, in particular); not nearly as confusing as the reviews make it out to be (the story has its abstract moments, but it’s almost completely linear); fixated on morose issues (death, sickness, loving people you aren’t with); and very well realized (good, sometimes great, set design).

It is also: the apotheosis of Charlie Kaufmanism. Why is this a problem? Because we already know too much about Charlie Kaufman.

Suppose a plot summary is in order. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an ambitious/pretentious (hard to tell) stage director in the midst of a dying marriage (to Catherine Keener), with child, and what feels like a self-actualizing case of hypochondria. Cotard is surrounded by portents of doom – he sees himself in cartoons on television, his home is soundtrack by blasé readings of international disasters – and tries to “do the right thing” most of the time, but this leaves him morose and wanting. When his wife and child leave him, time in the film begins moving more quickly, spanning decades in about an hour and a half: Cotard wins a MacArthur grant and falls for a box office manager (played by Samantha Morton), and then falls for one of his actresses (Michelle Williams). Cotard sets out to make a play about “everything,” which winds up being a play about anyone and everyone he sees, which then winds up a play about characters portraying himself and the people around him managing the play about everything, and so on and so forth. What begins with good intentions – a sweeping, universal statement, theater at its most direct and pure – becomes increasingly solipsistic. (The set of the play becomes a series of sets within sets; after a while, it’s entirely removed from the outside world, which by the way is falling apart amid riots and some sort of war. Honestly, it’s all pretty neat.)

Synecdoche’s concept is certainly original and (again) well-realized, but too many of its most important tics are familiar. Morton’s character – charming, seductive, a bit dangerous – reminds you of Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. Keener’s sort of an amalgam of her and Cameron Diaz’s characters in Being John Malkovich, ambitious but frumpy. Hoffman is often as pathetic as Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, without the funny altar ego. Hoffman’s Cotard Malkoviches himself later in the movie.

The film, while successful in its ambitions, is just too ambitious to be successful. Many critics have written eloquent or even moving reviews of Synecdoche, New York; these reviews invariably praise how “about everything” the film is, about you and everyone around you, how you live and act and judge and so on. It makes for moving prose, but Synecdoche isn’t confident enough in its audacity to go five minutes without hammering those themes to death. Literally. The film won’t leave you thinking about how to live a better life; it’ll leave you glad you’re not living Caden Cotard’s.