Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York"

By Guest Reviewer Josh Valentine

n. the use of a part for a wholeor a whole for a part such as saying the"White House,"
to mean the U.S. government

Also: part of the title of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's latest opus, (his directorial debut) "Synecdoche, New York" - a title that plays on the name of the town of Schenectady, New York. Kaufman's newest miserable hero, theater director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a denizen of Schenectady, who sees his life as something of a synecdoche. The film is a major accomplishment for Kaufman - a big step forward in modern filmmaking and screenwriting - and without a doubt one of the best of the year.
Kaufman's production of "Synecdoche, New York" is marvelously ambitious. The story is of Hoffman's Caden - a brilliant director of the stage, who fears his mortality on a daily basis. Stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a progressive artist who is always the last to encourage her husband, the sexually repressed, obsessed and confused Caden only feels comfort through death. Whether he's ritualistically reading obituaries or mentally projecting his visualized mortal fears onto his daughter Olive's (Sadie Goldstein) cartoons, Caden surrounds himself with death. In fact, he begins to literally -albeit psychosomatically - deteriorate. Even his last name references a disorder known as Cotard's Syndrome in which the afflicted holds delusions that he or she is dead or does not exist.

When Adele announces she is to leave for Berlin for her career with their daughter in tow, Caden becomes severely depressed. Even with the support and secret love of his box office cutie Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden is a truly broken man. After the close of his successful reproduction of "Death of a Salesman," Caden is given a genius grant to stage a show of his choice.
He develops an original piece, an everlasting recreation of truth - a play that takes place in a massive theater set as a duplicate of Schenectady and is both experienced by the audience and the actors while it is being performed. This becomes his dream project and his life's work and eventually his death. As the film develops from this point, we watch the enlargement and convolution of Caden's ever-changing piece - a mind-blowing, existential cinematic explosion. Needless to say, this film is definitely unlike anything that's ever come to your local theater.

Kaufman often uses his film's titles as a gateway to the main themes of his scripts, and this is no different. The idea of wordplay is found throughout the entire piece, as in clever use in dialogue. Caden confesses to Adele, "I have blood in my stool" to which she replies, "Like the one in your office?" As a thematic device, consider the word synecdoche's definition as a different meaning, in that it takes all kinds of parts to make a whole. Unfortunately for Caden, he considers himself all the worst parts. Caden feels he is only part of the whole, and he can never achieve universality as long as he is alive. To him, the name Caden Cotard will never be a synecdoche.

"Synecdoche, New York" proves a very meticulous piece as it is the first time the brilliant screenwriter has actually sat in the director's chair. His previous works have had intermediary directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry who have provided more widely accessible interpretations of Kaufman scripts such as the inventive "Being John Malkovich," the clever "Adaptation." and this critic's personal favorite film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It may have been a very different film had Kaufman decided on another director, and in fact a seasoned director could have offered a more accessible piece. In this film, Kaufman has certainly included a large number of personal neuroses - from dealing with celebrity to physical self-loathing - that create an unnecessary boundary between audience and film.

However, the film is still a wondrous character drama due to a handful of this year's best acting performances. After his Oscar win for 2005's "Capote," Hoffman has not disappointed in any of his following roles -from his Brando-esque realism in last year's "The Savages" to his second earned Oscar nomination in "Charlie Wilson's War." His performance as Caden Cotard is indisputably bewildering - a part through which Hoffman delivers a lived-in quality and convincingly portrays the depressive director from middle-age all the way to his waning sunset years. While Hoffman will get the most attention for his terrific leading performance, there are two other performances that may go preemptively unnoticed.

Samantha Morton, who has become a familiar face in independent film for the past few years and earned two Oscar nominations' effortlessly delivers her career performance as the dolefully unappreciated Hazel. Like Hoffman, her character ages drastically, at the end of the film and Morton dexterously shows unbelievable range throughout. During the film, Hazel desperately tries to charm her only love Caden and when he finally tells her how much he loves her, Morton delivers heartbreaking elation.

The other performance that will leave enthralled audiences with dropped jaws is that of character actor Tom Noonan as Caden's doppelganger Sammy - a man who inexplicably follows our forlorn hero and inevitably becomes cast in the play as Caden himself. While we are consistently reminded of Caden's endless pain, Sammy becomes a gratifying source of Caden's underlying happiness - a job Noonan presents through a bizarre, unexpected lovability.

For those seeking a mindless experience at the movie theater - and a short drive (the film has still yet to find its way to your local megaplex) - this is most likely not the film for you. However, if you wish to fully immerse yourself into a new world of majestic contemporary cinematic genius that both rejects and plays around with traditional Hollywood styles, this is the very interesting and one-of-a-kind film for you. It's not for every audience, but it is a wholly original work of elegance that is now the dark horse candidate for this year's best picture Oscar. Either way, it will certainly be unlike any trip you've ever made, if you make your way to "Synecdoche, New York."

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I left the screening of "Happy-Go-Lucky" not sure what to think. At times like this I tend to lean on greater minds in the ladies' restroom.

We mulled over the movie we had just seen. Agreed that it was a bit slow getting started as director Mike Leigh set up Poppy's (Sally Hawkins) happy-go-lucky lifestyle with her affectionate girlfriends. But what was the director trying to say? A voice from the next stall suggested that Poppy chose to be happy. (Wasn't that a great lesson for these hard times?) But was there a darker motive? Was this character manic or a desperate people pleaser? Was her optimistic outlook making her life any better?

To be honest, sometimes her giddy, self deprecating laughter and banter got on my nerves. Director Mike Leigh brought out the maddening aspects of her buoyant personality by pitting her (brilliantly) against more pessimistic characters such as her control freak driving instructor, Scott (the hilarious Eddie Marsan).

Scott is driven to distraction by her attention deficit, high heeled boots, and constant cheerful chatter. He instructs her to always expect the worse. He can't conceive that she could be a teacher when she is so immature.

Polly actually has an inspiring rapport with her students. She demonstrates focused insight and empathy when dealing with a bully in her class. Actress Sally Hawkins took what could have been a one note character and shows us her deep empathy and the resulting sadness. She can't make everyone happy. And her own optimistic outlook is tested by a controlling sister, a hurt back, an angry dance instructor, and an odd run in with a homeless man. It's not easy to be happy. You have to work at it.

Poppy has chosen to be happy - even if it takes a bit of work. But is her happiness dependent on making others happy? Can she make her own luck?

I always find it helpful to go back to the opening image of the film to illuminate the theme... Poppy blissfully rides her new bike to a bookstore where she babbles cheerfully to herself and then to a disinterested bystander. Exiting the bookstore, she finds that her bike is gone. Oh, well. She quips, "I didn't even get to say good-bye." Lalala.

So it seems that she has chosen to be happy even when there's no one else around. But she's happiest surrounded by those who love and accept her.

Phil Villarreal summed up the theme perfectly in the first line of his review, "Happiness is a state of mind rather than a reaction to circumstances."

Phil Villarreal, of the Arizona Daily Star, really nailed this review.

OK. For mature insight of the film, check out Josh Valentine's review:
(I would have posted this in depth review rather than mine, had he written it sooner.)

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal