Friday, November 28, 2008

Not so sure that I want to go back to Synedoche


Theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is mounting a new play. His life catering to suburban blue-hairs at the local regional theater in Schenectady, New York is looking bleak in Synedoche, New York. His wife Adele (Keener) has left him to pursue her painting in Berlin, taking their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her. His therapist, Madeleine Gravis (Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. A new relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Morton) has prematurely run aground. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. Worried about the transience of his life, he leaves his home behind. He gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in New York City, hoping to create a work of brutal honesty. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a growing mockup of the city outside.


However, as the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden's own life veers wildly off the tracks. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele's friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His lingering attachments to both Adele and Hazel are causing him to helplessly drive his new marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) into the ground. Sammy (Tom Noonan) and Tammy (Emily Watson), the actors hired to play Caden and Hazel, are making it difficult for the real Caden to revive his relationship with the real Hazel. The textured tangle of real and theatrical relationships blurs the line between the world of the play and that of Caden's own deteriorating reality. The years rapidly fold into each other, and Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece. As he pushes the limits of his relationships, both personally and professionally, a change in creative direction arrives in Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), a celebrated theater actress who may offer Caden the break he needs. Like Charlie Kaufman's earlier movies — "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" — "Synecdoche, New York" is bizarre, whimsical and at least a little confusing. The previous films also had unexpected heart and warmth. This new film is a dour, depressing and somewhat cold work. As a result, audiences will be less likely to wade through its complexities and various self-indulgences as they were in those other movies. Also, the comic fantasy has the unsure, tentative feel of the work of a first-time filmmaker — it marks screenwriter Kaufman's debut as a big-screen director, after all. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a New York stage director with personal and professional issues. His marriage to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) has become strained, and he's become a hypochondriac. Not too surprisingly, Adele leaves him, and takes their young daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), with her to Europe. The depressed Caden finds a sympathetic ear in pretty ticket taker Hazel (Samantha Morton), as well as Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in his current production. He's also won a fellowship, which has given him the financial freedom to stage a more personal work. So Caden has decided to create a massive "theater piece" based on his own life and those of his friends and family. Unfortunately, we don't particularly like any of these characters. Hoffman's Caden is too self-involved and whiny, and it seems ridiculous that he would have all these women competing for his affections. There are amusing bits here and there, though — Hazel's house is apparently on fire all the time. But the whole production-within-a-production thing is almost as pointless as it is confusing, even if it does afford a part for always welcome Dianne Wiest. In the audience, you pine for the end credits. It's a shame because you can sense every now and then that Kaufman is latching onto something deep and moving. Like many of Kaufman's screenplays, "Synecdoche" dwells on the misery that comes with artistic creation and the pain and paralysis caused by love, but was it enough to keep me satisfied? Not really. While I liked Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine, this one just didn't do it for me. A saddened 2 on my "Go See" scale. Go and see it for Hoffman's performance if not for anything else.

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