Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movie Log: Synecdoche, NY

I don't know if it's fair to call me a Charlie Kaufman fan, but he's certainly one of the most interesting and vital writers working in movies today, so I did catch up with Synecdoche, NY recently.

It's more than a bit messy and confused, and doesn't entirely work -- it doesn't work at all if you try to think of it as literally true, rather than as a concretized metaphor -- but it definitely has a power and energy to it. And once you hit the scene where a real estate agent shows a house that's on fire, you'll realize that you can't take it entirely seriously.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a minor provincial dramatist, putting on productions of old warhorses like Death of a Salesman in Schnectady, but he's married to painter Catherine Keener, whose career is just taking off. So she takes off, for Europe, and mostly disappears from the movie (which has a very uneasy relationship with the passing of time -- it senses that time does pass, but would prefer that things generally don't take that into account).

Hoffman then receives a MacArthur "genius" grant -- which is unlikely enough -- and starts to think about using it to create his magnum opus. Before long, he moves down to New York City (to a warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn, as far as I can tell) to begin rehearsals for a play about his own life. But the play, the characters, and the sets keep proliferating as Hoffman keeps trying to incorporate more and more of the materials of his life into the play, and eventually he seems to be trying to recreate an entire city -- the entire, actually existing city.

(Actually, the rehearsal bits show that he's still entirely focused on himself, which I presume means that all of the hundreds or thousands of other actors are only important to the play inasmuch as they interact with the character based on Hoffman.)

Along the way, Hoffman has various strange health problems, which proliferate, and various misshapen relationships with the women in his life, who also proliferate. Every so often, he remembers that he had a daughter with Keener, and tries to find or retrieve her, without luck.

All of Hoffman's life is "without luck," of course. This is the tragedy of the artist: he fails at life, and he fails at turning that life into art, by spending what the movie claims is several decades rehearsing his ever-more-complex piece of theater until disaster strikes before the never-to-be-reached opening day. That is an awfully self-indulgent theme for a work of popular art in a form not all that far removed from live theater, but Synecdoche, NY is so layered and obsessed with itself that it fails to punch its theme strongly, and thus sell it more effectively.

This isn't an easy movie, to like or to understand. Pieces of it are exceptional; pieces of it make hardly any sense at all. But it's a must for those who have enjoyed the movies that Kauffman wrote before this, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich. And we can hope that he'll manage to bring his screenplay ideas into focus as well as the other directors did on those movies.

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