Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_schnec_sm.jpgAfter Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all easily among the greatest films of the past decade, I have the utmost respect for Charlie Kaufman the writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

film_schnedcoche.jpg 

After Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all easily among the greatest films of the past decade, I have the utmost respect for Charlie Kaufman the writer; there’s no one else in America right now that has the combination of imagination and skill plus the clout to get unusual projects off of the ground like he does. But with Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman the writer meets Charlie Kaufman the director, who has been untested up until now, and it is never a safe assumption that a talented writer can also make a talented director.

You never really get the chance to judge Kaufman the director with Synecdoche, though, because Kaufman the writer isn’t at his best here, and it is hard to get past that. Synecdoche concerns aging, grotesquely sickly stage director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener, on whom, after Malkovich and Adaptation, we can safely assume Kaufman has at least a professional crush) takes his only kid and moves to Germany, leaving Caden to fend for himself against the onset of sickness and lack of inspiration. Shortly thereafter, Caden wins the McArthur Genius Grant, which ignites his creative instinct once more, and inspires him to make a replica New York and a replica of his life for his next stage production, which attempt eats up the rest of the film and makes up the meat of the movie, despite being introduced about halfway into its running time.

The first half or so is fairly embarrassingly dull—it is decidedly lacking in good ideas (which is upsetting coming from Kaufman), and there’s way too much stress on Caden’s vague and unpleasant medical condition. The film picks up a lot of steam toward the end when Caden starts casting actors to play the people in his life (and then actors to play the actors, etc.), and there is some interesting drama and moral quandaries contained therein, but there isn’t really enough steam to make the movie go by pleasantly. That said, the cast that play the actors playing the actors in the film (I’m so confused) is great, including many of my favorites such as Michelle Williams (quickly becoming one of the most interesting American actresses), Samantha Morton and Emily Watson.

That said, I have enough respect for Kaufman as an artist that I can’t help but wonder if I just didn’t get it—that it is my fault for not understanding it fully, and not Kaufman’s. That goes against every instinct I have as a film critic, of course, and a pompous one at that. I have to always be right, don’t I?. | Pete Timmermann

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