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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mysteries of Charlie Kaufman

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

I saw Synecdoche, New York over a week ago, and I've been pondering it and avoiding reviewing it ever since. It's definitely that kind of movie.

SNY (I can't handle trying to spell it every time I type it) is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the crazed genius writer behind such films as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Malkovich is probably in my top-20 movies ever, and Eternal Sunshine in my Top 10, so you can definitely call me a Kaufman fan.

SNY follows Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a stage director who has some personal loss with the breakup of his marriage, a few health problems, and then wins a genius grant. This takes up perhaps the first 1/2 hour of the movie and is fairly easy to follow. When he gets his grant, he decides to create a recreation of the minutiae of his life. He builds a set of his world and casts people in the parts of his life. The movie continually probes deeper into his production so that you continually have to question what you are watching. It's also pitched somewhere between crazy things happening with real-life logic and a sort of dream logic. It's much more impenetrable and I think personal than any of Kaufman's other movies.

So its interesting and difficult to follow and sometimes frustrating, but what is Kaufman trying to say? I'm not quite sure. I think he is imagining the ego of an artist's gaze taken to the extreme. Could any of us take a recreation of our life over and over and never ending? At the end, Hoffman's character seems to make a choice to leave this examination of his life for another path, which spins the movie in a whole new direction. He's also playing with dreams and reality. The viewer is constantly reeling because we're not sure how to take all the new information. It's not a one-sentence hook like Malkovich (a portal enters the brain of John Malkovich) or Sunshine (a company erases memories).

Hoffman is joined by some of the best current actresses in this film. Catherine Keener as his wife, Michelle Williams as Catherine Keener (sort of), Samantha Morton as a love interest, Emily Watson as Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest as an actress and mentor, etc. The cast keeps things lively and interesting all along.

This is perhaps the hardest movie to grade that I've seen in quite some time. It's by turns fascinating and frustrating, emotionally compelling and off-putting. I decided to give it a B+, for a fascinating idea that will take some time to figure out. However I end up feeling about the movie (and I have a feeling I will want to revisit it soon), kudos to Charlie Kaufman for having the courage to create such a personal vision that will likely be loathed by many who see it. If you like Kaufman's other movies, and don't mind a movie that doesn't "make sense," definitely see it and let me know what you think.

Grade: B+

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