Sigh. Well, kittens, here's another movie I feel like I'm going to be defending to its many vehement detractors for a good long while.
Seems like consensus is that Synecdoche, New York is a mess, but my god, what a wonderfully beautiful mess. Aside from the various and sundry easily recognizable Charlie Kaufman mindfuck tropes, it's also full of his signature "the unknowable-ness of the other" pessimism, but it's rendered delicately enough that, though I disagree with the spirit of the argument, I didn't mind it at all. It actually feels positively Kubrickian in its depiction of a unit destroying itself from within--the unit being Philip Seymour Hoffman's body, mind, and soul. In fact, I intuitively sensed I'd love the film as soon as I read Owen Gleiberman's dismissive review in Entertainment Weekly, which was so reminiscent of his totally-missing-the-point write-up of Eyes Wide Shut back in the day. And, wow, is the comparison ever apt: there's the fantasia version of a blandly stage-y New York on one hand and, on the other, there's the odyssey of a man wandering and fucking his way through a landscape of gorgeous, powerful women, most of whom end up being dreamlike, endlessly recursive stand-ins for each other--for whom he's no match physically, emotionally, sexually, or intellectually--while at least one vaguely ominiscent, or at least omnipresent, man tracks his every step. (Not to mention the subplot involving a lengthy trip to Berlin, which even links it to the German-language source material Traumnovella.) There's also shades of the highly controversial ending of AI, when Hoffman's character reveals his desire to re-perform and thus re-live "the happiest day of his life." I hated much of AI, mostly for the places that Spielberg's influence was felt heaviest, but I've always been a staunch defender of that "happy" ending because I feel that everyone misinterprets how darkly Freudian it actually is. Far from feeling like Synecdoche rides off the rails about halfway through, I felt like the weirdness it just keeps descending into actually becomes richer and deeper and more rewarding, even as it becomes more and more willfully incomprehensible. The actor-priest's monologue near the end may be a wee bit on the nose, but I was thankful for its paving the way for the introduction of the summarizing notion that "everyone is everyone," which set up that final scene in which Hoffman pathetically yet tenderly apologizes to a near-stranger who's clearly a stand-in, for, well, everyone. Then again, I'm a sucker for that kind of thematic/narrative trick.
And, fuck me, what a cast. Hoffman is brilliant as ever (the role is actually a perfect companion piece to what he's doing in The Savages), but, as mentioned above, the women are especially phenomenal. I never tire of watching Catherine Keener (like Mary-Louise Parker and Frances McDormand, she's becoming impossibly foxier with every year she ages). It's been a while since I've seen Samantha Morton in anything--I forgot how marvelous she can be, and her slightly plump physique felt like a welcome breath of reality. It seems, after her appearances here and in Brokeback Mountain and I'm Not There, that Michelle Williams is happily turning into quite the actress, and, as she's lost the Dawson's Creek-era baby fat in her face, she's becoming more and more heartbreakingly lovely, somehow evading the dreaded too-skinny stickbug look, ending up somehow slim yet womanly. As I mentioned in my review of The Nines, Hope Davis is always a welcome presence, even in the tiniest role, and getting Emily Watson to double Morton was both hilarious and inspired. And, saving Dianne Wiest's appearance for the end was the absolutely perfect flourish to an already incredible roster of talent.
Longtime Wrestling Entropy readers know that I tend to prefer and privilege these ambitious movies that swing for the fences, even when they don't succeed 100 percent of the way, so it should be no surprise that I adored Synecdoche. It's deeply, deeply sad, but really worth it. As CTLA always used to say, I laughed, I cried, I took notes.
UPDATE, Jan. 15, 2009: For those of you who may have stumbled through to this blog by Google searching for "priest monologue synecdoche, new york," I'm happy to (finally) be able to point you to a transcription here.