Synecdoche, New York + Oliver Stone’s W.

synecdochePhilip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)

By some cosmic whim of the calendar, Seattle’s lone advance screening for W., held on a Tuesday night the week the movie opened, abutted against an early Wednesday morning press screening for Synecdoche, New York, a scheduling double-whammy that seemingly merited this lede: Go to bed with Oliver Stone’s nightmare, wake up with Charlie Kaufman’s.

Only, to my immense surprise, Kaufman’s new film more closely resembles a dream-state. Synecdoche, New York misses being great art (which the endeavor clearly strives/wants to be) by a wide margin, and yet it’s an inescapably haunting, unabashedly romantic picture, a torch song, and a tone poem. The final 20-or-so minute stretch consciously evokes the climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey without ever looking like or nodding to Kubrick’s inventions. But Synecdoche captures the same sense of reverie that attends a journey through which we expect revelation. Now here’s the rub: Kaufman uses this lush romantic sensibility as a sort of amniotic fluid for doom and failure. At the end of the film, the theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has tried—unsuccessfully—for decades to mount an epic performance piece derived from his own life, awakens into a crumbling, rat-infested soundstage hotel room (the opposite of where Keir Dullea ended up) to find his theatre (a dirigible-sized model of New York) deserted. Driving a golf cart through the debris, he spies a woman emerging onto a platform in the distance, and he asks her, “Where is everybody?” The beautiful Deirdre O’Connell, in a brief, low-key, yet powerful performance as an actress/mother figure, answers him, “Mostly dead.” And that, at least to me, speaks to Synecdoche’s ineffable hold on the viewer—it’s a dream about outliving your dreams. It’s the song you never sang, the play you never wrote, the painting, the sculpture you couldn’t finish (or even begin). More than this, much more devastatingly, it’s the woman (or the man) you tenderly loved yet never proposed to.

Kaufman has found the perfect emblematic voice for his vision: the jazz vocalist Deanna Storey performs “I’m Just a Little Person” (Kaufman wrote the lyrics; Jon Brion composed the music), a minor-key ballad that’s heard twice in the movie, at first to bewitching effect (when Caden goes on a date with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box-office attendant who’s unaccountably smitten with him) and then, over the end credits, elegiacally, as a plaintive, saloon number on the chances we’ve missed. Storey’s delivery, much like Kaufman’s direction, builds cumulatively, without underlining. The song, a quiet hush that’s at once acquiescent and searching, feels destined to become a cabaret staple in the years ahead.

Readers may recall how vehemently I disliked Kaufman’s Adaptation, an onerous botch of experimental commercial filmmaking that reeked of an alcoholic frat boy freebasing on uppers and downers. That side of Kaufman remains on display in Synecdoche, New York. Yet once our Charlie has excreted the excrement jokes from his system, gotten past his predilection for “humorous” gory accidents and close-ups of gum surgery, or otherwise ceased to show us pustules adorning the face and legs of the hopelessly fat Philip Seymour Hoffman, the writer-director sails on to greater expressiveness. Kaufman still can’t discern between a funny joke (the German poet reading her chuckle-inducing glum stanzas on the radio in the opening scene) and a tasteless one, although I doubt he much cares. In this movie’s tawdriest excess, Caden attends his mother’s funeral with his actress friend Tammy (Emily Watson) in tow. In wandering the house for a moment alone from the other mourners, Caden and Tammy discover that the mother’s bedroom, the site of the elderly woman’s death, has, inexplicably, never been cleaned up. Blood-soaked white linens scream of the murder that took place there. (It’s the kind of non sequitur that Buñuel might have gotten away with. But would Buñuel have wanted to?) Lynn Cohen plays the small role of Caden’s mother with such dignity that it’s disgraceful to send her out on a visual punch line of this disorder. Cohen has marvelous cheekbones for her age, and she’s been appearing in nearly everything lately, from Sex in the City to Ethan Hawke’s worthwhile The Hottest State to Tom DiCillo’s little seen must-see Delirious; lovely and understated, Cohen may be the most pulchritudinous white-haired woman I know.

The other actresses in Synecdoche fare better, none more so Samantha Morton as the giddy, love-struck Hazel. In tandem with her Marilyn Monroe turn earlier this year in Harmony Korine’s underrated, flawed, perceptive, and, at times, rapturous Mister Lonely, this is a new plateau for Morton. With teasing playfulness here and a sense of the tragic in her Monroe look-alike, Morton, although often good in the past, now infuses a ripe sensuousness to the characters she lives and breathes. As Hazel, a vivacious redhead with a big smile and a small voice, Morton makes it credible that she could somehow be enamored by a man as ungainly as Caden.

And what of Hoffman in the leading role? In panning The Savages last year, I wrote that the actor, in spite of being cast as an academic, looked as if he rightly belonged at a truck stop. Here, trembling as Caden embraces Hazel at an unanticipated reunion, Hoffman appears halfway between a truck stop and an insane asylum. Which isn’t to say he’s terrible. Like so many other things in Synecdoche one can’t explain (such as why Hazel’s perennially on-fire house flickers and smolders without ever burning completely), Hoffman—and it pains me to type this—manages to be just right. I won’t say it’s the best acting he’s done; only that it’s the first acting he’s done. In his finest scene, and this I expect will be the moment in Synecdoche that gives The Critics pause—you know, that certain breed of film critic who nakedly mistrusts/resents any sign of emotional truth onscreen (i.e., the kind of critic, a la Hoberman, who has nothing to say to us)—Hoffman reminded me of George C. Scott. It’s the scene wherein Caden goes to a peep tent to see a woman who may or may not be his long absent daughter. I had a tough time believing that the heavily tattooed sex worker who gyrates on the other side of a glass wall was actually an adult version of Olive, last glimpsed as an adorable 4-year-old before her mother took her away from Caden; the writhing, snake-like creature in the booth seems more like a father’s projection of his darkest little-girl-lost fears. But Caden believes. When Hoffman yells, “Olive, it’s Daddy!” to a woman who can neither see him nor hear him (the cinematographer Frederick Elmes superimposes the images, separated by a glass divide, into each other), it’s as soul-piercing as Scott’s breakdown in a porn theatre projection room in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore. The worst degradation that could have happened has happened.

burstyn_cromwellEllen Burstyn and James Cromwell as Barbara and George H.W. Bush in W. (Lionsgate)

From the tantalizing Synecdoche, we move to the tedious W., an Oliver Stone movie that direly needs a dash or two of Natural Born Killers intensity; W. comes on with all the galloping gusto of C-SPAN. In sooth, the only Stone movie I’ve found genuinely great was Talk Radio: there, the director had Eric Bogosian’s dazzling source material (and Bogosian himself) to launch from. Here, he has an earnest, mostly well-meaning script by Stanley Weiser that plays like an underwater staging of David Hare’s Stuff Happens. Since there are no surprises in the scenarist’s ideas, we look for them in the cast. We receive a few.

The versatile Jesse Bradford, cast way against type as a fraternity president, circa 1966, easily evinces an irresistible cool in his one scene. Bradford’s Heights co-star Elizabeth Banks becomes a stunning Laura Bush—too stunning for the real Laura, in fact. One flash of Banks’s baby-blues, and we are hers. (But Weiser doesn’t provide a character arc for this Laura, leaving Banks’s preparation and dedication feeling unfinished.) Richard Dreyfuss uncannily impersonates Vice President Dick Cheney, so that we don’t see Dreyfuss at all—we’re peering straight through to the demon he channels. One could say the same about W.’s Donald Rumsfeld: Scott Glenn simply disappears into him. Jason Ritter’s fleeting appearance as Jeb Bush left me desiring a tad more. After a stiff, wax museum start, Jeffrey Wright hits his stride as Colin Powell, and Ioan Gruffudd makes a button-cute Tony Blair.

Best of all, there’s James Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush. Cromwell, whose masterly performance as Prince Philip in The Queen two years ago ought to have swept the supporting actor awards, neither looks nor sounds like Bush, Senior. There’s a moment (of father castigating son) when Cromwell navigates Poppy’s speech rhythms in those familiar, ruckus-y chimes; the actor, however, eschews caricature, aiming for complexity. And does he achieve it: W. presents Bush One as much more of an even-tempered moderate than he really was. His hawkish stance and how it reflected in his spasmodic body language, the very qualities that made him so infuriating to liberals, have been sponged away. Freed of these, Cromwell transforms the miserable old SOB into someone likable—or at least pitiable, as when he responds to an off-camera interviewer in weary defense of his son’s warmongering.

Stone’s flaccid direction flares to life intermittently: in the use of archival footage of protesters marching against pre-emptive strikes and in an inspired juxtaposition from Bush, Senior’s committee room moment of glory after Desert Storm to the election night announcement of his defeat by Clinton. But overall, it’s a dull slog, a monotony of hedged bets. In the title role, Josh Brolin lacks the meanness, the strutting wild animal quality of our nation’s most destructive president.

Regrettably, Stone wasn’t able to weave the current GOP meltdown into his scenario. One wonders what our chronicler of recent American history divines in the floundering of Senator John McCain and his Professional Victim in arms, Sarah Palin, who—should we be so fortunate—will be the subject of Stone’s next biopic. – NPT

October 16, 2008