Synecdoche, New York • 2008 • USA

I've finally seen Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and jeezus. I thought his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was trippy. How this film didn't sweep the Oscars I don't understand. Wait, yes I do. It's relentlessly bleak—in that Woody Allen 'obsessed-with-death' way—but it's also belly crunch hilarious. I had to stop and rewind a dozen times because I missed things, overcome by a wheezing laughter. There is not a feel good moment in the film and yet it left me strangely uplifted.

Charlie Kaufman is a contortionist of the mind. Again, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he stretches and reshapes time (and space, to a degree) until you just have to let go, and yet a firm narrative structure is always present, never abandoned. It's an amazing feat of screenplay-ism.

The film is remarkably cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors working today and he is perfect for the role of representing, on film, the introverted, insecure because he's seen the abyss genius of Charlie Kaufman. His performance is better, ten times better, and funnier, than anything he's done before. Imagine that! Catherine Keener? Has any one ever had a bad word to say about her? The pièce de résistance, however, in a creepy—as if it were meant to be but will never happen again but seems like it may have, or should have, been done before—kind of way is Emily Watson playing Samantha Morton. You'll have to see it to understand. If a fifth wall existed, this film would shatter it.

Casual movie-goers will find Synecdoche, New York difficult, dark, pretentious and hopeless, but if you like film, if you like writing, if you like artistic commitment, if you like mind-fuck hilarity, don't miss it.


Rachel Getting Married [2008] • USA

On the one hand, Rachel Getting Married is a docu-style contempo-drama where family members rip each other's skin off and speak directly to the nerve endings, and on the other hand it's a celebration of diversity where black and white marry, and a couple Asians are invited to the party for spice. Often, when these two hands come together they'll include a racist character who makes old school remarks so the audience can point and scream "old school!" with sheepish enlightenment, ala the moronic Gran Torino. The beauty of this film is that it doesn't engage in diversity training and simply observes the diversity. Its hipness cup does runneth over, however, by outfitting the bridesmaids in saris and designing the wedding cake as an elephant. There are no Indians in the film, nor any plot points suggesting any characters have ever been to India or even know any Indians. I can only assume that the theme is meant to play on the notion that all enlightened people love India. Maybe I missed something but it seems weird and inexplicable, and hence, a little multiculturally profligate.

The "look ma! No hands" handheld video camera that's meant to reinforce, or rather enforce, the not so much directing as capturing directorial style is annoying more than it needs to be. It devalues the film, and along with the numerous scenes that go on far too long (or needn't have been included in the first place) leaves the viewer with the impression that they are watching a real wedding video. I mean that in an unflattering way.

What makes this film really annoying, however, is that it is completely inauthentic. The grand metaphor for me involves Anne Hathaway and cigarettes. She's obviously a non-smoker in real life and just can't act smoking, and yet she chain smokes throughout the film. Why? Because it gives her rehab character street cred. That's how phony most of the script is. It's full of dialog that even the most narcissistic and damaged are incapable of, or maybe not, but even if you allow the serve, the volleys are absurd. Take the scene where the girls are in a salon getting their hair done. Hathaway is in a chair up front getting highlights while her sister's head is in the back being washed. Some asshole kneels in front of Hathaway and relates a story about knowing her from some rehab psycho ward where they passed around anonymous confessions as an cleansing exercise. The guy tells her he knows the note he got was from her and that her story of an uncle who sexually abused her and her sister helped him and he wants to say thank you. Now, it's just impossible for someone to be that stupid. Did I mention that he tells the story to Hathaway with enough volume that her sister, and presumably everyone else in the busy salon, also hears it? It's this kind of crass and amateurish manipulation that sinks the film. I couldn't recover after that scene, and neither did the film. Even if the film had gotten better, instead of a lot worse and much more boring, that big ugly stain of a scene could only receive positive marks for blotting out, by surpassing in ugliness, the interminable dishwasher fight scene that preceded it.

There is a lot to like about this film. The joy, amidst all the suffering, is palpable, and many of the performances are well-executed, a few resulting in very likable characters, mostly on the groom's side. But the bad overshadows the good, like the omnipresent group of musicians whose constant rehearsing provides a live soundtrack to the movie in lieu of a real one. It's a cool concept, like much of the film, but it doesn't work. I want to applaud the film's good intentions and its progressive approach to film making but it comes off as immature, self-indulgent, and too hip for its own good as it tries to cover way too much ground in its frustratingly unclear timeframe.