Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan
Running Time: 124 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Leave it up to Charlie Kaufman to craft a film so bizarre and insane that it makes the idea of entering a portal into John Malkovich's brain seem completely reasonable in comparison. Who would have ever guessed the screenwriter behind such mindbenders as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation was being held back by not directing his own scripts? Here, making his directorial debut, the shackles have been cut loose and with no one there to filter his vision he goes off the deep end. "Self Indulgent" isn't even the term here. Synecdoche (pronounced Syn-ECK-duh-kee), New York is the ultimate in masturbatory filmmaking excess that will confound, confuse and frustrate everyone.
The film is bi-polar, schizophrenic, has multiple personality disorder and suffers from hypocondria. Kaufman just doesn't swing for the fences, he runs out onto the field and tries to jump over them. It's difficult to reconcile that this is actually a directorial debut as not many filmmakers are brave enough to have their first feature draw on influences like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I talk not of the quality of the film but the level of ambition and what's scariest is the possibility that Kaufman is really serious here. When it ended I knew there was no way I could assign it a star rating. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything? Does it even matter? I had had no idea what I'd just seen. It would need AT LEAST another 3 or 4 viewings to put it in perspective, if that's even possible. You watch it the first time just to say you did. This is challenging with a capital "C," pushing viewer tolerance to the absolute breaking point.
I've stayed in Schenectady, New York (once) and I've performed in a play (once). One was a creatively fulfilling experience while the other was not. I'll let you take a guess as to which. But neither of those experiences were as memorable or maddeningly frustrating as watching Kaufman's film, or more accurately, his experimental work of art. Forgive me if this doesn't read like a standard review because there will come a point where all my thoughts will just turn to mush, much like they did about an hour into the movie.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard a depressed local theater director in Schenectady who's producing an updated version of Death of a Salesman in which he's come up with the novel idea of casting young actors in the roles of Willy and Linda Loman. The idea being that they play the roles with the fearful knowledge they someday will be old. At the same time Caden begins to come to down with a series of bizarre physical ailments that convince him he's dying even though no doctor seems able to diagnose him with anything.
A rift grows between him and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) who views her husband as a massive failure and soon absconds to Germany with their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). This leaves Caden even more alone and chronically depressed than usual, seeking comfort in both the arms of box office employee Hazel (Samantha Morton) and his miscast leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams). Very little life guidance is provided by his therapist (Hope Davis in a hilarious cameo) who's much more interested in hawking her latest self-help book and showing some leg than providing him with any insight.
"Oh, this isn't that crazy at all," could easily sum up my reaction to the film's first 50 minutes. As far as Kaufman penned projects go, it almost seemed downright tame, somewhat slow building and meandering at points. There are some strange clues that weird things could go down but aside from that it plays pretty much like your standard dysfunctional relationship movie featuring a typical self-loathing protagonist. That's until Caden receives a genius grant giving him the wealth to pursue his passion project as a director--a play based on his life. He gathers his ensemble cast into a huge warehouse in Manhattan where he creates a replica of the city inside. Everything after that may as well be a blur as the film disappears down the rabbit hole.
Notions of time and space are played with as months seem to pass by in the span of a week for Caden. His daughter is grown. Lovers leave. Lovers come back. He becomes an old man as Hoffman dons prosthetic makeup but unlike The Curious Case of Benjamin Button its nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly when that happens in the timeline for Caden in the story or for us watching the film. Time just doesn't exist in Kaufman's world. There's just life and death. What's in between is only a blip on the universe's radar screen (recalling the closing hotel room sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only stretched out longer).
The play, an outlet for Caden's neuroses, is complicated with the appearance of Sammy (Tom Noonan), the actor who lands the part of Caden after confessing he's been following him for the past 20 years preparing for the role. Sammy has an affair with Hazel as the real Caden embarks on one with the actress playing her (a very naked Emily Watson). It becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between the play and reality and Caden is directing a man who's playing him directing the play that's he's directing about his life. We haven't a clue what's happening to Caden or what will become of him. Is he dreaming? Is this the final moment before his death? Is he already dead?
Watching, you might be reminded of more films that have explored similar themes of mortality, human existence, forgiveness, love and regret, and in very unconventional ways. But none like this. My mind immediately turned, in either method or execution, to pictures like Vanilla Sky, Magnolia, Adaptation, Stranger Than Fiction and I Heart Huckabees. Just like Nicolas Cage's Kaufman doppelganger in Adaptation, Caden seems to represent the filmmakers' perception of himself and his failures. It shares its dark humor with Huckabees, as well a similarly whimsical John Brion score, but like Nicolas Cage's Kaufman doppelganger in Adaptation, Caden seems to represent the filmmakers' perception of himself and his failures. This introduces an intriguing question. Can you criticize Kaufman for self-indulgence when the film is ABOUT a director's self-indulgence and how it destroys him?
Hoffman has built an entire career out of playing self-loathing losers but here he plunges new depths in what's easily the least mainstream project his name has ever been attached to and one of his most challenging, rewarding roles. He lifts patheticness to an art form while all three actresses are on equal ground in terms of what they bring to the film. While I may be unclear on other issues it's hard to name three supporting actress performances in 2008 that could rival Keener, Morton or Williams'. It's rare to see three female supporting roles of this size and importance contained within a single film. They're the driving engine. Remove one of them and you'd have no film as each represents something very different for Caden, serving as a reflection of his own shortcomings. Keener's Adele is gifted at painting miniature pictures so what better way for him to get back at her then to undertake a project as big as possible?
Despite its self knowing tone and moments of genuine humor this is a very, very bleak film. Just the last word of dialogue spoken in it is proof enough of that. But as full of despair as it is it's also bursting with beauty and can be viewed as a love letter to creativity and a kick in the ass to the starving artist who dares to dream big. By its conclusion you're not so sure that this story was really just about Caden or that Kaufman made it just to entertain himself. If he did, he definitely went hard on himself. The deeper possibility exists that this film was ours, representing what we do with the limited time we have and how we place people in our lives in the parts we want them to play.
Though this runs 124 minutes it feels much longer probably because it's so gigantic in scope and ideas. When the final credits rolled I was unsure whether I wanted to hug Kaufman or strangle him. He made something that's just SO inaccessible and difficult to follow, but boy does he have balls for filming it. Like Richard Kelly last year he's gotten away with murder and it's a miracle any studio released this. He can take his place alongside Kelly, Tarantino and Luhrmann in the self-indulgence hall of fame.
The irony of it all is that this sticks out like a sore thumb in a year that saw very few filmmakers take any big risks and the output was disappointingly mainstreamed. There's always the dangerous tendency to overpraise a film for being different and original without thinking first whether it's just over-the-top eccentricity masquerading as art. Similarly, nothing should ever be casually dismissed on the grounds of weirdness or overambition. I was forewarned by many going in that this would be "my kind of movie." They were right. Subsequent viewings are necessary to unravel its mysteries. Kaufman has given us something we've never seen before and it better settle in because it'll be staying for a while.