December 10, 2008

Being Charlie Kaufman

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You'll walk out of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" feeling like a drunk bodybuilder just went bumper bowling with your brain.

Kaufman, known for his screenwriting chops in creating ensemble cerebral dramedies like "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," makes his directorial debut in "Synecdoche, New York."

And what a debut it is.

Kaufman has always been a movie mad scientist of sorts, creating surreal, trippy and wildly entertaining yarns that make him look smart and make you (and me) look dumb. That said, he might end up in a sanitarium after "Synecdoche, New York," eating pureed peanut and banana sandwiches through a straw.

The movie has more layers than a cake pictured in the Guinness Book, making it nearly impossible to summarize; even the studio needed several paragraphs and a few hundred words to do so in the official promotional materials.




But here goes …

"Synecdoche, New York" is about a sick small town theater director who wins a genius grant and decides to cast and rehearse a larger-than-life, living, breathing play about his own boring and confusing life. The director, Caden Cotard, is played by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. I should mention that "Cotard" is a reference to a disease I've never heard of, and oh, "Synecdoche" is a reference to a word I've never heard of. It's also actually spelled similarly a tiny city in Upstate New York where the movie begins, and its ZIP code happens to be 12345.

This is the maddening, sickening pace and level that Kaufman works at. He's a diabolical genius that could have college courses devoted to unlocking these ridiculous big screen Easter eggs. The problem is that his work is likely inaccessible to the ham-and-egger "Four Christmases" matinee audience who wants to stick around for an evening show – as well as the critics responsible for reviewing it. "Synecdoche" is so dense with allusion and metaphor that I could only offer a rough translation after research, a.k.a., 30 minutes on Google. Maybe after the fifth time I watch it, I'll understand why one of the character's house is always on fire.

Joining Hoffman is Kaufman collaborator Catherine Keener, taking on the role of Caden's artist wife who flies the cooper to Europe with their daughter. Michelle Williams plays an actress in Caden's toupe (and second wife), and Samantha Morton plays yet another love interest. These characters and others start to gain dramatic likenesses as Caden's play grows and grows within a massive hanger sitting smack in the middle of NYC. So basically, you have an actress playing an actress playing an actress playing an actress. Oh, and by the way, WWIII is brewing outside the cavernous studio.

I've tried to straddle a splintery fence in describing whether or not "Synecdoche, New York" is a decent flick. There are times when it just clicks, when Kaufman's Rubik's Cube approach to filmmaking locks in place for a few seconds and you're hit with this euphoric yet fleeting payoff punch to the senses. But epiphany ends and then you're forced to sit through a scene in which Caden is watching his dying daughter dance in a peepshow booth (Or is he?!), or another moment where Caden casts someone to play himself in his play – a guy who just happened to be following the director around for 20 years.

There's a moment in "Synecdoche, New York" when Hoffman's Caden character is talking about lighting cues for a staging of "Death of a Salesman," and he frustratingly states, "I don't know why I make it so complicated."

We don't either.

It might as well have been Kaufman looking in the funhouse mirror, asking the question himself.

"Synecdoche, New York" is rated R and is now playing in Richmond and select cities.

Source: Richmond

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