Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the Oscar Nomination Goes to...

I'm pleased to say that, at this point, sixteen hours or so after they were announced, I have no idea what any of the Academy Award nominations are. As much as I enjoyed working in entertainment journalism, it is nice to be able to not care about things you don't want to care about. I don't see very many new movies, although I have been watch a fair number of older ones, and I think the Oscars have merely a nodding acquaintance with actual filmic quality, so while sooner or later I'll find out who got nommed (and who got "snubbed," to use a word that gets more exercise at this time of year than at any other, as if the entire AMPAS body got together and decided they really wanted to rub Leonardo's face in it), for now I remain blissfully ignorant.

Thinking back, the only possible Oscar candidate I can remember seeing this year was Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, a movie which many critics fell over themselves praising but which no one really seemed to get, by which I mean no one saw it the way I did. It's a kind of fable about a theater director in upstate New York whose wife leaves him, which leads him in a roundabout way to move to New York City and, after getting a genius grant, trying to stage a play that is no more or less than a staging of life itself. It has Oscar potential because Charlie Kaufman is the kind of guy who gets noticed by the voters, and because it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, and I could probably make a decent movie if I was able to cast Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in it.

What none of the reviews seem to have noticed is the scene near the beginning where Catherine Keener tells a marriage counselor that she's fantasized about what her life would be like if her husband, PSH, were dead. Shortly thereafter, she goes to Germany for an art exhibit she's presenting - and it's at that point, I feel, that the movie becomes one long fantasy in the mind of PSH about what would happen if Catherine Keener were to leave his life for good. (Which she does.)

I say this because while it had been very realistic up to that point, it falls totally off the rails then, with scenes showing off Kaufman's trademark whimsicality, like a house that is perpetually on fire. There's not a believable moment in the last three quarters of the film. And Hoffman goes through a variety of fantasies, many of them paranoid, like a rash that starts invading his body (and then gets dropped like a hot potato) or the idea that his daughter, now living in Germany, becomes famous as the youngest tattoo-covered person in the world (the only time PSH sees her from that point on is in a strip club), or that he eventually becomes Catherine Keener's housecleaner (although he never sees her again). There are also positive fantasies, such as that genius grant or the idea that he'd marry the terminally cute Michelle Williams.

But my reading of the movie is that all that stuff is taking place in Hoffman's head. It's a theater director casting and blocking his own life, from that point forward.

It's also boring as all get out, in the second half of it. Once Hoffman is involved with his life-sized play, the film is hugely repetitive, with doppelgangers doubling back on doppelgangers. You start praying for him to die, because you know that's the only way the film could possibly end. And that is how it ends, seemingly four hours after you went into the theater.

Still, Hoffman and Keener are great, as always, as was Samantha Morton as the woman who lives in the perpetually burning house (and marries the man who was living in the basement when she moved in, in another nod toward unreality). I should check to see if they got Oscar nominations.

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