There is danger in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, namely that some arts grant recipient out there will come across this depiction of mad artistic ambition and decide, Yes. This is what I must do. Because there is a seductive appeal here in Kaufman’s jokey puzzle-box epic about an artist creating a work so all-encompassing that it overtakes not only his own life but almost the entire world. It’s performance art as civilization-annihilating Godzilla, the play that ate Manhattan, a theater of life that makes theater of the absurd seem like little more than art school fun and games.
We’ve been here before with Charlie Kaufman, it seems, and yet nothing is as we remember. There’s the schlubby and stumpy and self-hating authorial stand-in, several mind-benders that flout the space-time continuum with reckless abandon, an air of over-self-analyzed Woody Allen-esque neuroses, and a story that doubles back in on itself in a Rube Goldberg maze. All these familiar Kaufman tropes have made their mark in his previous scripts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the point where they’ve established a mini-genre unto themselves: Worriers who lose touch with reality in a Twilight Zone of angst. But there’s something different here, as Kaufman (in his directorial debut) does a jail-break from his own tropes and obsessions by indulging them to heretofore unseen depths.
The spattering of festival reviews and word-of-mouth that has preceded Synecdoche, New York makes the film sound like something hatched by a mad scientist who somehow got his hand on a screenwriting how-to book, that there’s simply no way that the average person could even hope to comprehend it on the first viewing; don’t believe it. Yes, to be sure, this is a film that dives down the rabbit hole well before its conclusion and will ultimately leave you scratching your head. But on the other hand, this is also a film that’s monumentally simple. It’s about a man, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, as gravelly and hangdog as he’s ever been) who’s terrified of dying before doing something important with his life or finding a woman to love. That’s it; everything else is just decoration on that simple, horrifying, gnawing worry. With jokes.
From the time the film starts, with a depressed Caden waking up to hear the morning radio announcer intoning dolefully about fall and the beauty of Rilke’s poetry, to its end, where Caden’s long-stalled theater project has literally become a world unto itself, there is a steadfast refusal to take itself too seriously. In between the swirls of word manias, hypochondriacal obsessions, and the hydra-like sprouting of doppelgangers (every character here is ultimately played by at least one other actor, if not more), Kaufman inserts snippets of sly humor that help keep the whole enterprise from overheating on its own pretense. Even where the humor takes us out of the reality of the situation (like the house where Samantha Morton, playing one of Caden’s romantic targets, lives, even though it’s somehow constantly on fire; for years), it maintains a certain humanity amid the chilly and death-haunted sci-fi conceit.
Synecdoche, New York was originally supposed to be shot by Spike Jonze, who gave Kaufman his break from working on sitcoms and The Dana Carvey Show by directing Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and much of what’s good in this film could well be attributed to Jonze’s absence. Even though Kaufman’s script calls for a good deal of trickery—the eternally burning house, the theater installation that ultimately becomes the size of a small country—it’s dialed back to a minimum of showiness.
Where Jonze would have been packing the screen with tricks and gags, Kaufman is more content to let his script speak for itself, and concentrates on his squad of actors, who do some of the best work seen on movie screens this year. A tightly-coiled Hoffman is heartrendingly good, as is the verbally voluptuous Morton, and the austerely threatening Tom Noonan, who pops by to play Caden in his own play. Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the other female loves and hates of Caden’s life, all carve out vibrant performances here with dramatic ease.
If Catherine Keener, playing Caden’s wife, doesn’t register, it’s not for any lack of her trying it’s only that she’s forced to play the same browbeating bully she did in Being John Malkovich and more recently Hamlet 2. That said, as a kind of stand-in for Kaufman’s muse, when her uncompromising judge of a character departs the film later on, and we’re left with Caden, a certain air leeks out of the whole enterprise and we follow her ghostly absence almost as intently as Caden does.
Another difference between Kaufman and Jonze’s approaches shows up in Kaufman’s perspicacious take on the ramifications of death, which runs here like a hot wire through all his script’s Russian nesting dolls of plot ideas. Just as Michel Gondry was able to find the romantic impulse within the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind script, so here Kaufman stays clued in to Caden’s terror and how it fuels his increasingly pretentious vision of a play “which I think will be pure and truthful,” even if he has no other clue of what it will be. (The painfully funny scene where an actor asks Caden when they’ll be able to get an audience in to see the play that they’ve been rehearing for seventeen years, tells it all.) He knows death is coming, but maybe by constructing this wall of a theatrical monstrosity (thank you, MacArthur genius grant) he can put it at bay. Just one more scene, one more note on this actor, one more idea, one more chance to get his wife back…
Synecdoche, New York may not be a “pure and truthful” like what Caden is eternally crafting in his aircraft-hanger of a theater, but it’s certainly funnier. Kaufman doesn’t even bother informing the audience that they’ve entered a new dimension in this film, the limitations of reality are taken for granted. In doing so, Kaufman comes closer to creating a kind of cinematic magic realism than any American director has done in living memory. And it’s only his first film.
Synecdoche, New York – Trailer
Clint Eastwood’s been directing movies since about the time Kaufman turned 13, and even though their styles are about as far removed from each as is possible, the two evince a similar ease and warmth towards their performers. In the case of Eastwood’s historical potboiler Changeling, his staid approach to the material is counterbalanced at least in part by some remarkably assured performances, mostly from relative unknowns.
This is saying something, given that about every other frame of film shows an elegantly grieving Angelina Jolie, treated with the sort of carved-marble angelic gravitas that Kieslowski gave the women of his “Three Colors” trilogy. The role of worried mother and crusader for justice is not an easy one to pull off, and Jolie disports herself rather well in this regard; but it’s hard to call what she’s doing here acting. It’s more of a gift from Eastwood than anything else: here’s how to make the Academy forget Tomb Raider and Wanted.
As Christine Collins—the Los Angeles mother whose son disappeared in 1928, only to have the L.A.P.D. return a different child five months later and demand that she accept him as her missing boy—Jolie has to endure a barrage of torment here, mostly from condescending male authority figures who just want her to shut up and do as she’s told. It’s a fantastically horrendous case that takes on even more emotional weight by its being buttressed by reality; the opening credits pointedly read “A true story”, instead of “based on” or “inspired by”.
A monumentally corrupt police force is eager to polish the case off and, aided by a phalanx of sneering experts, would rather try and pack Collins off to the mental hospital than acknowledge a mistake. Instead of turning Collins into the instant crusader, Eastwood has Jolie play it cool; at a press conference she calls to announce that the boy living in her house is not her son, Jolie’s voice is convincingly timid and quivering, miles away from the action-flick valkyrie she’s been playing of late.
When the story takes an unexpectedly bloody bent (disturbing as it is, many of the historical record’s more gothic and tragic elements have been excised), the film turns into less of a one-woman show. Even so, Changeling is more often a stiff piece of work that doesn’t do right by its source material. While making a comprehensible narrative out of the true case’s byzantine sprawl warrants some reshaping, by trying to cram such a chaotic and hard-to-believe tale into a conventional Greatest Picture format, sucks too much air out of the narrative. Actors like Michael Kelly (in a sharp performance as a detective who breaks the case that comprises the second half of the film) and the amazing Amy Ryan (making history as the first actress to take the role of a prostitute unjustly committed to the nuthouse, and somehow underplay it) make up most of the difference, but not enough.
When it comes to the stranger than fiction category, this is a film that wins hands-down, containing numerous elements and characters whom nobody would ever believe in an invented story. But Changeling relies too much on Jolie’s carefully-honed presence to pull it through; this is a film that, like her, could have stood to have its makeup smudged.