Highbrow Anxiety

Photo: Abbot Gensler/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

There’s something appealingly anti-psychological about Charlie Kaufman. As a Jew who explores the inner lives of anxious neurotic depressive solipsists, he could be expected to build his works around repressed traumas and cathartic revelations: very Freudian, very twentieth century. But Kaufman goes in the opposite direction. The whirlpool doesn’t circle in on painful personal truths—it moves outward, in ever-widening spirals, until identity is swallowed up by larger forces. In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) studied an actor playing another version of Charlie Kaufman (Jon Cusack) while a Charlie Kaufman twin (also Nicolas Cage) lived out a contrapuntal, ante–Charlie Kaufman life—whereupon all the Charlies and Charlie creations were sucked into the maw of the movie-within-a-movie’s Hollywood story structure. Now, in Synecdoche, New York, his madly overambitious directorial debut, Kaufman contrives to display even more permutations of the self, on the way to the self’s dissolution. This epic dream play with its leaps through time and space, its characters and shadow characters, poses a momentous question: Uh … well … I’m not sure what question the movie is posing. The answer, though, is definitely “Death.”

The protagonist of Synecdoche, New York is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a regional-theater director in a failing body and a failing marriage who is putting the final touches on a production of Death of a Salesman. The film’s first act is deft—realistic, but with little absurdist bumps that both goose you and give you goose bumps. The plumbing in Caden’s old house explodes and there’s blood in his pee and the set of his production is collapsing: decay, decay, decay. His painter wife (Catherine Keener) decamps for a show in Berlin with their 4-year-old daughter, Olive, which is when things begin to get extra-strange—when we leave the kind of drama embodied by Arthur Miller way behind. Groggy, morose, experiencing seizures and breaking out in pustules, Caden allows himself to be seduced by the dizzy redhead, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house that is perpetually on fire; and then takes up with his needy blonde leading lady, Claire (Michelle Williams). The time frame blurs. Why can’t he get through to his wife in Berlin? Has she been gone a week? A year? Is that Olive in a German magazine covered in tattoos? This isn’t another movie in which the protagonist is dead and doesn’t know it???

The best thing to do with one’s spatial-temporal bewilderment is get over it and go with the free-associational flow: Synecdoche, New York cannot be diagrammed. It takes place near Schenectady and it is a synecdoche—a stand-in for something else that can be a stand-in for it. At some point, Caden wins a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to mount a semi-improvised dramatic epic in a vast moldering warehouse that will illuminate his own life. He has been trailed by a mysterious doppelgänger (Tom Noonan); now that man assumes Caden’s role, and becomes the director. Circles intersect: Hazel takes up with Caden No. 2 while Caden consoles himself with the younger, dishier Hazel No. 2 (Emily Watson). Caden’s jowls deepen; his hair turns white and falls out. People die. The man who has always been alone is even more alone. Slowly, he lets go of his notions of cause and effect, his identity, his specialness. Very slowly. Very, very slowly.

I died a little myself in the last half-hour of Synecdoche, New York, when the movie turned into a tone poem, an interminable threnody for a life barely lived. Part of the problem is that Kaufman doesn’t establish his director’s voice: He doesn’t vary the rhythm of his shots, and his camera watches neutrally as actors intone his increasingly portentous lines. There’s a hint of self-satire in the way that Caden overcomplicates things, but Kaufman seems to have acquired Woody Allen’s suspiciousness of comedy, and Hoffman is so dedicated to his character’s mopiness that he sucks the air out of the frame. It’s a bummer when your hero seems born to succumb.

On the plus side, Jon Brion contributes a four-note motif that conjures up a vivid sense of loss. A few of the actors come through. Keener’s bedraggled world-weariness is like a haiku, and Michelle Williams has a lyrical simplicity. A scene in which Caden meets his grown-up, ill daughter has a breathtaking visual effect: One of her leaf tattoos shrivels and falls off. It’s heartbreaking how rich this failed project is, with enough poetry for several great movies, but not enough push for one.

Oliver Stone’s W. is a bloodless puppet show, but give Stone points for attempting to burrow into the boy-king’s head. As in his biopics of Nixon and Alexander the Great, he comes not to mock his subject but to dramatize the nexus of great power and personality. The slant is Oedipal: Bush’s downfall, pegged to Iraq, is rooted in the tension with his dad. The movie begins with his declaration to do what his father didn’t—finish off Saddam—then leaps back in time to show W. (Josh Brolin) being sprung from jail by his father (James Cromwell) after a drunken frat-house binge. “Poppy” Bush calls “Junior” a disappointment and draws unfavorable comparisons with his younger brother, Jeb. Junior will show the old man, even if it means letting Cheney and Rumsfeld off their leashes.

By (low) biopic standards, this is a promising plan of attack. What’s dismaying is the lameness of the execution. W. receives the news in a Cabinet meeting that there are no WMDs in Iraq, listens to Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) sputter excuses, and says: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” This is, of course, a legendary “Bushism,” but it was blithered at a press conference when Bush had his usual trouble reciting his folksy talking points. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser don’t seem to know the difference between public and private discourse. There’s no racy, idiomatic dialogue here—no scenes with an independent life. The whole movie is talking points.

Brolin at least holds the screen. Early on, his W. is pure appetite, cramming food into his mouth and swilling beer. Suddenly sober, he’s a man reeling in search of a self. But I don’t buy his fundamental earnestness. Stone’s W. isn’t the smirking liar who never, as Norman Mailer said, felt a twinge of doubt about his qualifications to be president. He’s in over his head, but he means well.

W. isn’t gripping enough as drama or witty enough as satire. It’s neutered. Did Stone want to change his rabble-rouser image and show his critics he has become more responsible? (He has his own daddy issues.) Big mistake! His greatest asset—and I say this as someone whose least favorite film is Natural Born Killers—is a lusty, blowhard showmanship. In the midst of the turmoil that George W. Bush has wrought, Stone has delivered his most tepid film.

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother whose young son disappeared in 1928 and was returned six months later—at least, the Los Angeles Police Department said it was her son. She didn’t recognize him, which irritated the patriarchal and corrupt police captain so much he threw her into a mental hospital. It would be a horrific story even if underplayed, but Eastwood shoots it like a horror movie. The false boy is lit to resemble the Antichrist Damien in The Omen, while in the psychiatric ward, whey-faced loons press their heads against the bars and shriek, ugly nurses leer, and the creepy doctor plots to throw Angie on a gurney and give her jolts of electricity. The ham-handed script by J. Michael Straczynski rearranges events so that the motives of the police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) are unfathomable—he must want Damien to grow up and bring forth Armageddon. The way Eastwood shoves Jolie’s suffering in our face is like a threat to the Academy: “And the Oscar will go to … ” She’s a great actress. She doesn’t need his domineering chivalry.

Born in California in 1930, Clint Eastwood seems like the obvious pick to direct Changeling, given its setting in Depression-era Los Angeles, but the film’s original director was Ron Howard, who dropped out to direct Frost/Nixon. A father of seven kids, Eastwood told USA Today that he sees Changeling as “a horror film … the worst nightmare an adult could have.” And Angelina Jolie, the world’s most famous mother of six, told Entertainment Weekly, “When Brad [Pitt] saw Changeling, he said he could see my mother … So decent and sweet, but when it came to protecting her children, she somehow found this odd strength.’’

Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Directed by Oliver Stone.
Lionsgate. PG-13.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Universal Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Highbrow Anxiety