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Kaufman's `Synecdoche' a challenge even for fans.

Byline: Daniel M. Kimmel

COLUMN: Movie Review

If you've seen "Being John Malkovich" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," you have some sense of writer Charlie Kaufman at work. They're twisted and imaginative movies that turn back on themselves like a snake eating its own tail. Although he had a popular success with "Adaptation" (in which Nicolas Cage played both Kaufman and his fictional twin brother), he has always been an acquired taste. His latest - which also marks his directing debut - may test his fan base to the limit while leaving most moviegoers angry and frustrated.

It starts out like a normal movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a writer and drama teacher at an upstate New York college. He has a troubled marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener), an artist who paints exquisitely tiny miniature paintings. He flirts with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who runs the box office. It looks like the story of the desperate lives of people who don't get to fulfill their dreams.

Then Caden gets a MacArthur Foundation grant (the so-called "genius grant") that will underwrite his ultimate theater production. He takes over a warehouse in New York and starts to duplicate the city outside within its ever-expanding walls. He hires actors to replicate the mundane lives being lived outside, including his own. Of course, then he will have to hire someone to play himself directing someone playing himself. Perhaps you think you can see where this is going, but you can't.

The point of the film, ultimately, seems to be that life is meaningless or, at the very least, that we will never understand anything more than the fact that we're born, we live and we die. For some, this will be a profound and cinematic masterpiece, but for most - including this reviewer - it seems like the worst sort of self-indulgence. As we watch Caden's life disintegrate and literally get consumed by his play, there doesn't seem to be any point except to watch this sad man circling the drain without anything to show for his sorry existence. It's a valid philosophical viewpoint, if one insists - it's called "nihilism" - but it doesn't make for very satisfying drama.

As a director, Kaufman seems more interested in the artifice of his world than in his characters. Watching Hoffman in this film is seeing an actor having the life drained out of him. Keener, a funny and gifted actress, plays a part she has already done too many times, that of the emasculating wife or ex-wife. By the time Dianne Wiest shows up late in the film, it's too late to save it. Her sole job is to drive the final stake into the corpse.

Give Kaufman credit for getting Hollywood to put up money for a movie that's experimental and offbeat and anything but commercial. Viewers looking for something completely different can give "Synecdoche, New York" a try, but although it has its partisans, this is a bleak and unsatisfying film that has to be considered a failure.

`Synecdoche, New York'

*1/2

A Sony Pictures Classics presentation

Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton star in "Synecdoche, New York."
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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Dec 12, 2008
Words:541
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