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Imitation of Life

...Or Something Quite Like It In Charlie Kaufman's Latest Metafictional Exploration Of Existence


Jennifer Jason Leigh and Philip Seymour Hoffman Wonder What They Did Last Night.

By John Barry | Posted 11/12/2008

For anyone who slept through freshman English, Charlie Kaufman is a godsend. As screenwriter for Being John Malkovich, he taught us what a literary portal is: the way into the brain of a self-absorbed actor. We learned what a lacuna was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: a tiny startup that erases relationships from memory. Now with his latest, which Kaufman writes and directs, we get a handle on the concept of synecdoche. Sort of. It's small-town theater as near-death experience.

Synecdoche, New York opens on a shaking, handheld video, focusing on Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) checking the due date of the milk, while his estranged wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), checks her daughter's green poop. While he's shaving, a faucet explodes in his face, and blood starts spurting out of a gash in his right eye. The ghoulish doctor stitching him up tells him that he's got to go to a neurologist, who detects a degenerative disease, which manifests itself in the occasional Dostoyevsky-ian grand mal seizure.

Things go downhill from there. As resident director of a regional theater, Caden is stapling together a production of Death of a Salesman, which is meant to pander to a bunch of suburban blue-hair subscribers. His wife, the successful artist, is on her way to Germany to open an exhibit of her miniaturist art. She's taking their daughter, and it looks as if they're gone for good. When he tries to find consolation in a tawdry affair with a 36-year-old box-office assistant named Hazel (Samantha Morton), he's seized with performance anxiety. So she kicks him out of bed, and he heads off to his now-empty home.

And then there's the stretch: Two-bit director Caden gets an improbable MacCarthur Fellowship Genius Grant. For those who don't dream of it nightly, that offers the opportunity not just to be called genius but also to get a lot of money with no strings attached. Suddenly, Caden gets his chance to be an artist. He takes his theater company to a warehouse in New York, rebuilds a miniature city within the city, and starts to work on a play in which the actors start to relive their lives. Then things get really confusing.

Life imitates art, and for Kaufman, finally getting the chance to direct one of his own scripts is a moral equivalent of Caden's Genius award. He's plunging into the movie's central conceit with the relish of, well, a writer who's finally getting the chance to show it as he sees it. He takes it to the limit, and it's a sometimes beautiful, often chaotic portrayal of what is essentially the paradox of the creative consciousness: We write our own stories, but somehow we also leave ourselves out of them.

With a cast of characters who wind up representing themselves representing themselves, once Synecdoche shifts into genius mode, it gets powerful, and sometimes frustrating, as concentric levels of reality pile up. It's a movie about a play about a play about a second-tier director. Hoffman is a master at conveying restless, misdirected creative energy, and here Caden's borderline psychosis fills the screen and drives the movie. Unfortunately, he's got Kaufman's own somewhat frantic energies to contend with: As Kaufman starts to flash forward, and backward, in time, between representations of himself and of himself as director, Hoffman's performance loses a little of its impact.

Kaufman the screenwriter has earned deserved credit for his female characters, and Synecdoche's women are predatory, nut-cracking, and, each in her separate way, fascinating. Keener's Adele treads the borderline between pity and withering contempt. Morton's voluptuous Hazel oozes sexuality, at least until she doesn't get what she wants. Hope Davis has a memorable role as Caden's zoned-out, new-age-book-plugging therapist. And there are plenty more: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Robin Weigert. If there's a catch, it's that this herd of love interests--some of whom play actresses playing actresses whom Caden is hopelessly in love with--gets a little blurry.

But that's the point. Like an overambitious play by a small-town director--or like life itself--Synecdoche is messy but often brilliant. Think back to Being John Malkovich, when characters, after brief journeys inside the actor's brain, get spat out on to a New Jersey turnpike. You'll pick yourself up, wipe yourself off, and wonder exactly what you've just been through. But after Synecdoche, New York, you'll also feel that somehow the ride was worth it.

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