May 25, 2013
Written by Jonathan Schumann
Thursday, 04 December 2008 12:03
For several years, Jonathan Schumann contributed film reviews as part of the “Take Two” father-and-sons movie reviewer team. This week, his father Mark, the “Reel Dad,” steps aside to bring Jonathan back to the column for a guest appearance.
Since 1999’s Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has amassed a level of fame that’s rare for a screenwriter. Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno, with her slang-driven fare and stripper background, is the only other recent phenom in the same league. Kaufman’s aggressively idiosyncratic, chaotic worldview has turned conventional genres on their ear — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy for hipsters, manic depressives, and schizophrenics alike.
It’s no surprise that Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, has been so eagerly awaited. Would Kaufman’s decidedly unorthodox narrative style survive without the directorial filter of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry? The answer is a resounding no.
Synecdoche, New York is a muddle of existential malaise and grating navel-gazing. The film follows Caden (Capote’s Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman), a downtrodden regional theater director whose life is swiftly deteriorating. His sardonic wife (Being John Malkovich’s Catherine Keener) takes their daughter and moves to Berlin with her pot-smoking best friend (Margot at the Wedding’s Jennifer Jason Leigh). On top of this personal failure, Caden experiences a series of increasingly disgusting medical woes — graphically depicted gum surgery is the least of it. Things begin to look up when he wins a prestigious grant and decides to mount an ambitious theater project that aims to realistically depict everyday life. Housed in a gigantic New York City warehouse, the play turns into a decade-spanning behemoth, with recreations of all of the places and people in Caden’s life.
The chief problem with Synecdoche, New York, outside of its crippling ambition, is Kaufman’s refusal to fully develop any of the other characters in Caden’s life. Hoffman does an underwhelming two-dimensional tap dance of death-tinged midlife disappointment, and Kaufman’s obsession with Caden’s woes push the potentially vibrant supporting cast into the fringe.
Samantha Morton (Minority Report) makes the strongest impression as Caden’s loyal assistant, Hazel, while Keener, and Dianne Wiest (Hannah and Her Sisters) and Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love) as actresses in Caden’s production come almost as close. It’s a shame to see the remaining cast, consisting of some of the best character actresses working today including Leigh, Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), and Hope Davis (American Splendor), go to such cruel waste.
While the entire proceedings are tamped down by Kaufman’s exceedingly bleak atmospherics, composer Jon Brion, who provided memorable scores for I Heart Huckabees and Punch-Drunk Love, deserves special mention for his whimsical score.
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