Monday, November 17, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

By Elise Nakhnikian

A speech toward the end of Synecdoche, New York sums up the arc of a life: the great expectations at the start; the disappointments and detours that dim those hopes; the people who fall away through the years; the realization that we’re none of us so special after all – that “everyone is everyone.” It’s a beautifully written chunk of dialogue, but that’s not why it resonates so profoundly.

I’ve watched this movie twice, and I still can’t figure out how its impressionistic, sometimes absurd layering of emotions and ideas adds up to a moving meditation on the meaning of life. So I can’t tell you why it works, but I can tell you that it moved me as deeply as any film I’ve seen this year.

Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), one of Hollywood’s few truly original writers, initially intended to hand his script over to Spike Jonze, who turned Kaufman’s screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation into cult hits. But when the writing took longer than expected and Jonze got tied up in his own pet project, Kaufman took the lead, rocketing out of the chute with a directorial debut that feels like the work of an old master.

Like Kaufman’s other stories, this one centers around a frustrated antihero who’s struggling with work, love, and life in general. This time it’s Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an acclaimed theatrical director who can’t seem to get what he wants. His wife (the radiant Catherine Keener) is leaving him, taking their adorable four-year-old daughter (Sadie Goldstein) with her, and he is developing a series of mysterious illnesses.

Afraid he’s about to die (after you’ve googled “synecdoche,” take a look at “cotard”), Caden worries that he’s frittering his life away – “staging someone else’s play,” as his wife says of the Arthur Miller production he directs.

Then he gets a MacArthur grant. He uses the money to develop a play aimed at revealing the inner lives of every actor in it. In pursuit of “the brutal truth,” he rents an enormous soundstage and fills it up, first with actors and sets and then with street upon street of neighborhoods that mirror the city outside. Over the next few decades, he schools his actors on how to play themselves and each other, eventually even hiring someone to play himself.

In time, everyone on the set has a double. Some of the doubles even have doubles of their own. People are living other people’s lives, falling for their loved ones’ doubles or their doubles’ loved ones in a nonstop, unscripted dress rehearsal.

Meanwhile, Caden is neglecting his own inner life, starting a second family with Claire (Michelle Williams), his lead actress, while mooning for his first wife and daughter. He also nurses a lifelong unconsummated romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the steadfastly devoted flirt who ran the box office in his first theater and becomes his assistant at the second.

Keener, Williams, and Morton are just three in a long list of excellent actresses – including Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dierdre O’Connell – who infuse the movie with much of its life. The women also help make the borderline grotesque Caden sympathetic. Eyeing him with amusement, exasperation, and love, they reveal the humanity that makes him feel, in the end, like a stand-in for us all.

Kaufman says he wanted this movie to have the texture of a dream, and so it does. The time-warping narrative telescopes whole decades while lingering over significant moments, leapfrogging through time the way we do in our memories and dreams. Many encounters are also surreal – even absurd – in the deadpan, unquestioning way of a dream. Hazel’s house, for instance, is on fire for the many years she lives in it, though it never burns down. (“The sellers are very motivated,” the realtor chirps, as young Hazel eyes the flames leaping through a chink in the wall.)

But the emotions are always utterly real, and all the talk about bodily functions and malfunctions makes the whole thing feel very down to earth.

There are also lot of laughs – particularly early on, while you’re still surprised by the absurdity and not quite attuned to the melancholy undertones. And there are gorgeous images, like the eerily beautiful blimp that glides by in the background one night, silver and black against a dark sky, like something out of Metropolis.

Synecdoche is about the betrayals of the flesh and life’s many other disappointments. But, like the poignant song that plays over the closing credits, it’s ultimately uplifting. Its simulated world may contain all the sorrow and horror of life on Earth, but it also contains all the beauty and joy.

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