TIFF Review: Synecdoche, New York

124 Minutes // USA // Sony Picture Classics
dir. Charlie Kaufman
Thursday, September 11th, 2008. Scotiabank Theater 1.
Second showing @ the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival
Special Presentations Program.
starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams & Samantha Morton

Charlie Kaufman’s first film where he’s had total control: he wrote, directed and produced this feature. This also marks the first time he’s ever sat in the director’s chair. As a long time writer, it was interesting to see how he’d handle his own material… here’s what happened! Now taking in consideration that Kaufman hasn’t ever directed, I’ve got to give him credit for taking a path en route akin a la Michel Gondry – so something bold and innovative; not simplistic and typical – which worked as well as it did faltered. As it’s really the first time he’s been able to envision and create that vision on camera, I’ll give him a slight break and hope that his next effort is a bit better. He’s got the flare and passion for creating great cinema every good director needs, but he just lacks some of the emotional connectivity that some of the greats are able to convey through the medium; a few important scenes tend to go off their emotional trail and become cold when they should be closer to your heart. Still, it’s much better than being a generic director.

Kaufman is known for his zany – and sometimes illogical – scripts that, although may not make much sense for most of the film, do eventually connect somewhat logically somewhere in the film, which makes him one of the most talented writers of this generation. To have such ideas that sound foolish and utterly ridiculous, but then end up being a miracle of cinema – his vision tends to be considered a revival of an otherwise “boring” generation of writers. His seemingly drug induced plots and sometimes hilarious/sometimes devastating dialogue/scenario setups are what make him a mogul in the literary world today; this film is no exception. Though it does have the tendency to border pretentious, having all the power in the world to create “your own film” is a good enough reason for one to explore both sides of their personal idealistic spectrum. This is one of my favourite scripts by Kaufman – it appears that he mixed his own creativity with the mindset of a person along the lines of David Lynch to create this oddly compelling comedy/drama/mystery (and it isn’t even a mystery, but how the film unravels makes it seem that way). A film of a new element.

Most people are probably wondering “What is this film about?”, well I’ll let you know as soon as I’m able to comprehend everything. I’ve got a brief idea, but it is easily the most puzzling film of the year. Due to its questionable subject matter, it was completely engaging, thus creating the illusion of the film being sifted through, rather than tattered and worn down by the second act (or at least that’s one of two general responses). From what I’ve gathered, the film is about a theater director named Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has urinary and bowel issues – the case being he is basically bleeding profusely when he has a bodily function. He goes to the doctor to check it out, and this subplot basically ends here. It really goes nowhere apart from the fact that he becomes obsessed with it and thinks he’s about to die, therefore driving the main plot, which is Caden wanting to create a memorable piece of art before he dies. Because of this, he has martial issues with his miniature canvas painting wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) and gets a hint of dementia because she takes their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein) away to go to Paris. From this point on Caden has difficulties coping with the real world and creates a larger than life play by constantly adding onto it, thus becoming self-absorbed in the grandness and entirety of it all. There’s a point in the story where Caden comes to the point where he feels the best story possible is his own story; so while he’s rehearsing his story on set, he has to add onto the script because as long as he is alive, the play will never end. It gets so absurd to the point where he re-casts people he previously cast to play those casted people… who are still in the play. For example, he meets Hazal (Samantha Morton) at the doctor’s clinic and invites her to be in the play. Then – because she is apart of his life – he casts a woman, Tammy (Emily Watson) to play Hazal down to the T. Hell, there’s even a point where he casts someone to play him in the play (Sammy played by Chris Noonan), even though he is in the play himself. Basically the film becomes so out of hand and dysfunctional you’ll either be caught up in it’s enigmatic web-like structure or you’ll turn off your brain and call the film tripe; either opinion is correct in this instance.

Due to the film’s transcendence, it needs a few performances that will work well with its oddity induced frame. Cue the cast! Everyone in this film is wonderful: whether it be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most audacious performance to date. His stark, absurd ridden, jumbled sense of awareness and sense of being all collide in this everlasting performance. His best work to date? No doubt – certainly the best of the year as well. Or Samantha Morton’s most eccentric performance to date; or Michelle Williams’ most lovable performance to date, the cast really exceeds one’s expectations. These three stars are completely award worthy (especially Hoffman) and I wouldn’t be against them getting nominations at all. Some of their best work… ever. Even people that go without much credit (even in the trailers) are excellent. I’m talking about Chris Noonan who’s leaches off of Hoffman’s anxiety like mosquitoes to a vein, and Sadie Goldstein who gives one of the best child performances of the decade (and completely out acts Catherine Keener). This cast is basically unheard of in terms of quality and abstractness.

With all of these (combustible) elements being constrained to only one feature, be cautious when approaching it. You’ll either fall for it or resent it; a beautiful mess or a dauntless embark on this generations new art style, Synecdoche, New York is bound to divide audiences over its ambition. [8/10]