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Pretentious Movie Alert: Synecdoche, New York

September and October were slow months for the world of pretentiousness in the Qualler-Brigitte household. We spent too much time watching the now-officially-HBO's-third-biggest-hit-ever series True Blood which has greatly improved in quality in the past few weeks (mostly thanks to adding a few castmembers who aren't hillbilly stereotypes! Plus, a little Lizzy Caplan and Anna Paquin nudity goes a long way.) And, I admit, we've just been lazy in going out to check out anything that might be perceived as the least bit "difficult". But, this weekend, we broke the streak with Charlie Kaufman's magnificent Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman's 1999 first film Being John Malkovich ranks in my top five favorite films of all time, but, remarkably, I think Synecdoche is a bigger achievement.

Kaufmann makes his directorial debut with this film, which isn't readily apparent in the style. As Chris pointed out, he seemed to mix a little of his two directorial collaborators' styles (Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry). If anything, Kaufman has no filter when he directs. Whereas Jonze was able to streamline the crazy ideas of Kaufman's scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation into surprisingly cohesive, straight-forward narratives, Kaufman as a director assumingly indulges in all of his whims. That means the occasional ten-second scene between doctor-patient discussing neurologists, opthamologists, and urologists. Kaufman also borrows a little of the visual inventivenss of Gondry as a director by producing amazing visual images -- such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton at old age sitting together in the house that she bought years ago that has, oh, been on fire since she bought it.

Oh yeah, I should mention the amazing cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman leads the stellar cast as Caden Cotard, playwright and prototypical Kaufman-esque protagonist -- the lonely artist type who has some messed-up things going on in his brain. Hoffman is commanding in all of his scenes, alternatingly hilarious in his neurosis and utterly tragic in his longing for meaning. Woody Allen vets Samantha Morton and Dianne Wiest are also excellent, the former as his oddball muse Hazel and the latter as a woman who Hoffman eventually begins to pretend to be. There's also the always great Catherine Keener who plays Hoffman's wife who also creates very tiny paintings that go in art galleries that can only be viewed with special magnifying glasses. And Michelle Williams, who continues to defy logic by showing that at least half of the cast of Dawson's Creek can actually act (Joshua Jackson being, sort of, the other one).

But a great cast can only go as far as a screenplay goes, and Kaufman's screenplay is by far his most ambitious, which is saying something considering and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich are also on his resume. Of course, it is easy to confuse ambition with purposeful ambivalence and pretentiousness. Critical reaction to the film is fairly mixed, with the turning point in the reactions essentially being whether the critic bought into the screenplay. This screenplay had more uproariously hilarious moments and, likewise, more dark material than any of Kaufman's other works. And the final hour of the film is almost like David Lynch in its creeping dread and the sense that the viewer's gone into a wormhole that he won't escape from.

The difference, though, is the very prototypical human feelings that pervade in that final hour. Every person wonders about what happens when one dies, about what it would be like to be somebody else, about what it would be like to control a human situation. Kaufman is not being purposely ambivalent for the sake of confounding the audience into thinking his movie is art. His writing is some of the most original writing in film today, and perhaps the most ambitious, but also some of the most honestly, achingly human. When you can say that about a movie that also features mutliple changes in identity, a wishy-washy timeline, tattoos, self-help gurus who are also kind of stalkers, houses on fire, giant pink boxes because "she likes the color pink", and more, you know that you've got a talented screenwriter.

And I'm thrilled because now I don't have to name The Dark Knight as the best film of 2008!

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  1. Blogger Brigitte | 2:35 PM |  

    great movie!

  2. Blogger chris | 3:08 PM |  

    It really was amazing. I was trying to understand where the negative reviews were coming from, but I really couldn't. Yeah it's maddening, but how can you fault it for that when it's so entertaining and touching at the same time (plus it makes you feel like how Caden feels)?

    The only nagging thing I have is PSH, who while wonderful, isn't doing anything here that he hasn't done before. Now you can just take that to mean it was spot-on casting, because it was, but I was actually far more taken by Williams, Wiest, Keener, and even the guy who played Sammy than I was by Hoffman.

    Also, I need to see it again, but I think I still ultimately like the "big three" (Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation) better than this.

  3. Blogger katherinemarie | 3:17 PM |  

    nice recap, qualler! i have to say this movie left me with a pretty big wtf??? feeling but i liked it nonetheless.

    i also enjoy giant, body-covering tattoos.

  4. Blogger qualler | 3:28 PM |  

    I agree -- the "big three" I think I still like more, but it's hard not to admire the accomplishment that is Synecdoche. I'll have to give it more time to let it settle into how beloved it will be for me in comparison to his other films, but it's definitely up there.

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