There is danger in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, namely that some arts grant recipient out there will come across this depiction of mad artistic ambition and decide, Yes. This is what I must do. Because there is a seductive appeal here in Kaufman’s jokey puzzle-box epic about an artist creating a work so all-encompassing that it overtakes not only his own life but almost the entire world. It’s performance art as civilization-annihilating Godzilla, the play that ate Manhattan, a theater of life that makes theater of the absurd seem like little more than art school fun and games.
We’ve been here before with Charlie Kaufman, it seems, and yet nothing is as we remember. There’s the schlubby and stumpy and self-hating authorial stand-in, several mind-benders that flout the space-time continuum with reckless abandon, an air of over-self-analyzed Woody Allen-esque neuroses, and a story that doubles back in on itself in a Rube Goldberg maze. All these familiar Kaufman tropes have made their mark in his previous scripts like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the point where they’ve established a mini-genre unto themselves: Worriers who lose touch with reality in a Twilight Zone of angst. But there’s something different here, as Kaufman (in his directorial debut) does a jail-break from his own tropes and obsessions by indulging them to heretofore unseen depths….
Clint Eastwood’s been directing movies since about the time Kaufman turned 13, and even though their styles are about as far removed from each as is possible, the two evince a similar ease and warmth towards their performers. In the case of Eastwood’s historical potboiler Changeling, his staid approach to the material is counterbalanced at least in part by some remarkably assured performances, mostly from relative unknowns.
This is saying something, given that about every other frame of film shows an elegantly grieving Angelina Jolie, treated with the sort of carved-marble angelic gravitas that Kieslowski gave the women of his “Three Colors” trilogy. The role of worried mother and crusader for justice is not an easy one to pull off, and Jolie disports herself rather well in this regard; but it’s hard to call what she’s doing here acting. It’s more of a gift from Eastwood than anything else: here’s how to make the Academy forget Tomb Raider and Wanted….
Both Synecdoche, New York and Changeling open today in limited release, expanding wider on Halloween. Read the full consideration of them at PopMatters.