Sunday, November 16, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

I've been fascinated by the twisted and brilliant mind of Charlie Kaufman ever since I saw Being John Malkovich. To be sure, Kaufman is not for everyone and even though I appreciate his offbeat and unique sensibilities, I am often bewildered and baffled by his movies.

Synecdoche, New York is no exception.

In fact, in the conglomeration of Kaufman films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Synecdoche, New York stands head and shoulders above the rest in its weirdness, oddity and eccentricity.

It makes Being John Malkovich look like Sesame Street.

Like many Kaufman tales, Synecdoche, New York features a self-reflective to the point of self-absorption hero who is muddled and befuddled and struggling to find meaning in this strange ride we call life.

Philip Seymour Hoffman does his usual terrific job as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose mid-life crisis is characterized by an obsession with bodily functions along with regret, self-loathing and a fear of aging that manifests in a series of odd physical ailments and mental frailities.

After Cotard's wife takes his daughter and abandons him, he is gifted with the opportunity to do something important with his life in the form of a grant funding a creative endeavor. Cotard decides to create a piece of theater that is blatantly and brazenly truthful and real and over the course of 40 or so years, the project grows and morphs and stumbles and sputters--much like life itself.

Cotard's play, like Kaufman's film about it, is like life--with art imitating life and life imitating art. The play--and the film--is a celebration (if one can use that word for the excruiating process) of the awkward and mundane, the grotesquely scatalogical, the profound and the profane. The fleeting moments of joy offset by the pain of loss and grief.

Hoffman is joined by a top-notch cast of women--a veritable "who's who" of the indie film circuit:

Catherine Keener plays his faithless wife, Adele
Michelle Williams, actress and second wife Claire
Hope Davis, therapist Madeleine Gravis
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Adele's best friend Maria
Samantha Morton plays Caden's long-time friend and soulmate, Hazel
Dianne Wiest plays Millicent Weems, an actress playing the part of Ellen Bascomb
Emily Watson plays Tammy, an actress playing the part of Hazel

So you have actors playing the people in Cotard's life (including several who play Cotard himself). For all the people who find Samantha Morton and Emily Watson to be part of a group of indistinguishably interchangeable actresses, Kaufman takes advantage of this by having Watson playing an actress playing the part of Morton's character of Hazel. (It's quite a mind-fuck and had me confused...) And then on top of that, you have actors playing the actors who are playing the people in Cotard's life.

And then it gets really weird.

As the play and film and Cotard's life progresses, he becomes so tired and infirm that he cedes his directorial role to Millicent, who was playing Ellen but now takes over the part of Caden. And, along with directing the play, she also directs Caden in his performance of the role of Ellen--and his life.

Like I said, really bizarre.

I can't say that I understood everything Kaufman was trying to convey. There were some of his usual oddities (like Adele's miniature art work which requires the use of magnifying glasses to view it or Olive's full-body tattoos), metaphorical surrealism (Hazel's continuously smoldering house--perhaps a symbol for her long-held passion for Caden?) and the just downright strange like the voyeuristic Sammy who initially seems to be a character out of a David Lynch movie.

At times Kaufman--and Caden--rises out of the mire of self-absorption with a brief epiphany:

"There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due."
Or the brief moment where Caden and Hazel are able to connect intimately, exposing both their passion and their vulnerability.

But much of the film--and the play--is about the waiting and the repetition of a life marching relentlessly to its inevitable and inexorable conclusion: death. I'm not sure if Kaufman was cautioning against living in the past or the perils of a too examined life, but there did seem to be one thematic element that was readily understood: The Theatre of the Absurd is Life.

Or vice versa...

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