Charlie Kaufman's directing debut Synecdoche, New York is the most inaccessible, challenging, infuriating, stupefying, heartbreaking film of 2008. It's also the best American movie we've seen this year, and as noted here this morning, it's required viewing this weekend for anyone who wants to be on our good side. Or history's good side, for that matter — and here are five reasons why.1. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Period. When we called our shot for Brad Pitt as the likely winner in a crowded Best Actor field, we hadn't yet seen Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, N.Y., regional theater director at odds with his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and his own chronically afflicted body. When Adele and his young daughter leave him for new, famous lives in Berlin, Caden spends the next 30 years funneling a Macarthur "genius" grant into staging his masterpiece: A city within a city, populated by himself, his doppelganger (Tom Noonan), his doppelganger's doppelganger and those of the people closest to him. Yet nobody and nothing is as close to Caden as his own admitted psychosis, the layers of which collapse onto and into each other in scene after scene. Sounds great, right? Except, well, it is. Portraying a man vexed by doctors, lovers, work and ultimately himself (aging decades in the process), Hoffman digs into an adventure of suffering as ludicrous as it is bittersweet. In one crucial scene when the hunt for his estranged daughter takes him to Berlin, what little interaction they have both validates and fetishizes his paranoia — just one of dozens of metaphysical stunts that make Hoffman's performance thrilling and really kind of inspiring. He not only gets but owns all this mindbending melancholy, and for the maybe first time ever, we felt like we had a guide in our tumble down the Kaufman rabbit hole. 2. Six extraordinary roles for women. Starting with Samantha Morton as Caden's theater receptionist-turned-lover-turned-right-hand Hazel (and then Emily Watson as the woman who depicts her in his play), Synecdoche features enough dynamic parts for actresses to fill its own Oscar category. Michelle Williams and Dianne Wiest contribute brilliant turns as Caden's second wife and fourth doppelganger, respectively, but Hope Davis walks away with her scenes as arguably the world's worst couples therapist: 3. Charlie Kaufman gets to be Charlie Kaufman. Like director and former collaborator Michel Gondry, whose screenwriting debut Science of Sleep found a grandly ambitious balance of theory and technique that slipped through the twee seams of their Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman and his vision seem more potent and personal on their own. (Don't get us started about his overrated work with Spike Jonze.) It's another nifty trick under the circumstances; as Manohla Dargis alludes to in her fantastic NYT review, an opus about failure is itself a staggering creative success that took decidedly less than a lifetime to make. And for better or worse, it can happen to you. Maybe not the part about bedding Michelle Williams, but that never ends well anyway. 4. Hazel lives in a house on fire. Why? Kaufman professes not to know, but it makes already great scenes (and a classic, climactic bit of dark humor) altogether memorable. 5. Adele Lack's paintings. The square-inch canvases on display through the weekend at the Montalban Gallery are too absurdly small to require the paint-spattered basement workshop where Keener's character composes them, but we think their clues to Caden's past, present and future symbolize the rewards viewers earn for accepting an artist's challenge. Sound familiar? Like so much of the rest of Synecdoche, New York, it really is your life. We'd sincerely hate to see you miss it.
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