Saturday, December 6, 2008

Review: Synecdoche, New York

"Synecdoche, New York" is not only the saddest American film of the year, but of the past few. This is the kind of film that you'd expect a filmmaker to create near the end of their career, or even their life, but that's the kind of courage that writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Oscar winner for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") brings to the table. This is about as fearless, brutal and uncompromising as a film can get.

As is expected by this point of a Kaufman screenplay, the story is labyrinthe, but unlike most, there is no big revelation of the deeper point at the end; I've now seen it twice, and feel as though I need several more viewings to appropriately wrap my head around it. The story, at least at the outset, follows Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) through an indeterminable amount of time. It starts in 2006, when Caden develops a mysterious illness that nobody knows how to explain; every doctor he sees sends him to another doctor, who sends him to another, and so on and so forth. Worse, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) takes his daughter Olive to an art exhibition in Germany and never comes back.

However, in the midst of this, Caden recieves a MacArthur Genius grant to create his masterwork, and this is where the film begins to take shape as a wildly inventive, borderline psychotic narrative; without warning, Caden is thrust several years ahead without realizing it and without warning. There are lots of strange sequences from the outset; Caden's caustic therapist (Hope Davis) responds to Caden's asking "Who would kill themselves like that?" with "Why did you?" In another scene, a dying woman's flower tattoo begins to wilt, causing petals to fall off her arm.

As the film goes on, Caden begins to wonder exactly what is happening to him; not only is his perception of time disturbed, but he begins to become consumed by his art, to the point where he loses the ability to distinguish reality from fiction, and even worse, fiction begins to become reality and vice versa. This film is reminiscent of "Adaptation," another Kaufman script, insofar as it poses major questions about the nature of creativity and art itself. More specifically, they examine that theoretical point at which an artist becomes so absorbed in his art that he forgets to live in the process.

The film spirals further and further out of control, and has a habit of doubling and tripling characters and locations until the audience is no longer able to comprehend what's going on. The movie has been severely criticized because of this, but I disagree with the claims that Kaufman lost control. A film like this can get away with a lot as long as it obeys the rules that it has created for itself within its own world; this is why "Cloverfield" worked, and why this film works. The film continues to follow Caden as he races towards the inevitable, having to admit that he spent his life trying to play God and failing, and it ends with a brutal, bleak final line. The line, when you consider who delivers it, how they do it and who it's delivered to, is quite possibly the only ending that this film could have.

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