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From the DVD Shelf: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (one of my very favorite films, and the film that made me forever a fan of Sam Rockwell), Adaptation (click here for my review), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed.  (To this day, that is the first and only film Mr. Kaufman has directed.)  Based on Mr. Kaufman’s pedigree, I was of course eager to see Synecdoche, New York when it was released.  But I missed it in theatres, and when I read mixed reviews of the film, my enthusiasm to see it dimmed a bit.  It remained on my list of movies-I-want-to-see, but that is a very LONG list, and so it was only last month when I finally sat down to watch Mr. Kaufman’s movie.

Synecdoche, New York is a very bizarre film.  It is very difficult, at times, to watch (both because of the somewhat confusing narrative but also because I found much of the film’s subject matter to be incredibly depressing).  But it is also very funny in places, and I found the film’s wonderfully weird, almost dreamlike structure to be quite unique and engaging.

From the very beginning, the film is constantly, subtly playing with the idea of what is reality.  At first it seems like we’re watching a sad, quiet relationship drama, not unlike many other small-budget indie films.  We can see that the marriage between the playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling.  But, without fanfare, in the early scenes there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments when the film seems to slip into Caden’s head, and what we see on-screen is not reality but rather what Caden is thinking and feeling.  I’m thinking, most notably, of several amusing instances in which Caden imagines himself in the middle of whatever he is watching on TV.

As the film progresses, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.  After Adele leaves Caden and heads to London without him, we see Caden reading a magazine, and he comes across a spread in the magazine all about Adele.  At first I assumed that was a moment of fantasy, in which Caden was imagining Adele being completely happy and successful without him in London.  (It must be fantasy, because how could she have a lengthy article written about her only a week after she went to London?)  But later scenes caused me to question my interpretation of that scene.  The sit-up-and-take notice moment, for me, came a few minutes later (about 30 minutes into the film).  We see Caden meet Hazel (Samantha … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he really did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.’”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, … [continued]