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Laramie Movie Scope:
Synecdoche, New York

The most original, challenging film of 2008

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 18, 2009 -- This wildly offbeat masterpiece of a film by Charlie Kaufman reminds me of the more off-the-wall imaginings of another crazed filmmaker, Terry Gilliam, who created a vaguely similar bizarre masterpiece, “Brazil” more than 20 years ago. In the same vein, Kaufman, has created his own masterwork in “Synecdoche, New York,” a movie which explores the innermost workings of a dysfunctional creative mind. The difference is that Gilliam explored the workings of an Orwellian society, while Kaufman here is engaged in something like artistic navel gazing. Kaufman is exploring the very wellspring of artistic creativity. His gaze is turned deeply inward.

Kaufman, writer of such notable screenplays as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Adaptation” has always been interested in the workings of the inner mind, as in his screenplay, “Being John Malkovich,” which literally takes place inside a man's mind. In “Scynecdoche, N.Y.” the story is about an award-winning playwright, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman of “Doubt”) who tries to work out the problems in his own life by creating a play that reflects his life. As he gets more and more wrapped up in the play, it literally becomes his whole life. The play and his real life become indistinguishable from each other. As he tinkers with the play for years, his whole life passes by. It reminded me of the saying, “Life is what happens while you make other plans.” Although Cotard explores his life through this elaborate play, it is unclear if he actually learns anything about himself during the process.

The play that Cotard creates is vast in scale and complex in execution. It is built inside a huge building, very similar to the enormous old French railway station in which Orson Welles filmed his equally strange existential film, “The Trial.” The cast of characters numbers into the hundreds, if not thousands. The sets are vast, a recreation of an entire city. The fourth wall of every room is open to the audience. The idea of this play is that you don't sit and watch a stage, but you walk through a virtual city and peer into people's homes and lives. It is an intriguing idea. Cotard casts another man to play himself in the play. Later on, Cotard himself plays another character in the play and the man playing Cotard takes over direction of the play. This gives you an idea of how complex this movie is and how Cotard's life and his play become completely entangled. In addition to the absurdly expensive and enormous play, there are other surrealistic touches in the movie, such as a house that perpetually burns for years on end, but is never consumed, like the Bible story of the burning bush.

This might be the best film of 2008. I have no idea if it is or not. I'd have to watch this film several more times to see all that it has to offer. It explores love, life, death and distractions. Cotard is a guy with a lot of medical problems, but he doesn't live his life as a man who doesn't have long to live. Other characters seem equally oblivious to the dangers around them (like the woman who lives in the burning house). It is a complex film with a lot of layers. It is the most original, challenging film of the year, and is right up there with “Timecrimes” in terms of its head-scratching complexity. Charlie Kaufman has arrived as a filmmaker on his very first try after years of writing great screenplays. This is an amazing film. I saw a lot of myself in it. I look forward to seeing it again, and to Kaufman's next effort. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)