Thursday, May 28, 2009

SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK (now playing at home where you can watch somebody else's bummer life and be thankful for your own)

In Synecdoche New York (pronounced "sin-ECT-do-kee," it's word play on Schenectady, where some of it's filmed) stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a man so self-obsessed that he builds a replica of New York City inside a gigantic warehouse in Manhattan, populates it with a multitude of actors, and creates an ongoing and all-consuming performance piece about his own life.

The first thing we learn about Cotard is that he and his family have a morbid fascination with their own feces. And since I'm the one interpreting the metaphors here, I'd say that sets the stage for what follows--his life slowly turning to sh*t. Cotard's artist wife, Adele, (Catherine Keener) absconds to Germany with their young daughter, Olive. Finding his child becomes his initial obsession going forward. He develops bizarre psychosomatic symptoms and his health slowly deteriorates. Through another marriage that produces another daughter, Caden's unrequited love for Hazel, (Samantha Morton) the box office girl, never wanes. Reality mixes with magic realism, as at one point Hazel moves into a house that is literally on fire--smoldering slowly throughout the movie--stating that she hopes the house doesn't do her in.

Caden receives a MacArthur grant and suddenly possesses the means to create his self-indulgent "play," which never opens--it just drones on in endless rehearsal. At one point, one of the actors inquires as to when they might get an audience, noting that it's been seventeen years already. His life becomes the theatre piece...the theatre piece is his life. The serpentine plot continually folds in on itself until finally you give up trying to keep track of where Caden's real life ends and the play begins. Screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman intimates that since we're all the stars of our own stories in real life, (all the world's a stage) there's really no difference between the two.

The real tragedy of Caden Cotard's life is had he thought about anything but his OWN pain--perhaps empathized with someone else's--the whole thing could have turned around for him. (See "Mother Teresa.")

No synopsis can capture the intangibles that must all hang together to make a film a great work of art: soundtrack, dialogue, and cinematography. But most of all, the ability to connect with the audience at the core emotional level of our common humanity.

Despite its heartbreakingly sad tenor, Synecdoche New York is undeniably a DARK COMEDY. Kaufman (who wrote the screenplay for the quirky Being John Malkovich) understands that comedy stems from pain. That's why so many comics have had really screwed-up childhoods. Kaufman once wrote for TV sitcoms, and going for the laugh (bizarre though it may be) is where his instincts lie. Here, he has assembled an accomplished cast to deliver the goods-- including: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, and Dianne Wiest. Hoffman delivers the bravura performance.

Synecdoche New York is a comedy in the way that the human drama is a comedy--one day we will wake up and comprehend the cosmic joke. It seems that Charlie Kaufman already gets it. And while Caden Cotard may have ultimately failed at creating the masterpiece he intended...Kaufman did not.