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Excellence In Film

I don't expect very much from movies. Most are mediocre, falling far short of quality entertainment, let alone art. For the most part, the mediocrity doesn't disappointment me because great art is always rare, and it makes no sense to hope for more from movies, especially when commercial considerations exert so much pressure on those artists who work in the (extraordinarily expensive and technically complicated) medium of film. (Not that the mediocrity doesn't sometimes become irritating, as it did for me, most recently, in the case of The Dark Knight, which critics praised in the grandest terms and which turned out, in my view, to be a pseudo-serious and sadistic mess of a movie.)

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to have seen three truly wonderful recent films within the past few weeks. Two of them are among the best I've seen in several years, and I'd rank the third even higher -- as a work of art of a very high order.

First the merely excellent: Rachel Getting Married and Happy-Go-Lucky. The first is the least original of the three films, exploring the same psychological terrain as Robert Redford's Ordinary People. Director Jonathan Demme makes a few missteps (at one point the plot is advanced with the kind of contrivance that would make any halfway decent scriptwriter blush), but on the whole his hand is remarkably steady. Relying almost exclusively on hand-held camera to create the illusion that we're observing the events of a single hectic weekend in the life of a vibrantly real (and very quirkily multicultural) family, Demme allows the film to unfold organically. Two scenes -- the toast-filled rehearsal dinner two nights before the wedding of eldest daughter Rachel and the reception that follows the wedding -- go on at great length, allowing us to join in the mixture of tedium and joy that invariably mark such events as if we were experiencing them ourselves. (One is reminded of the sprawling, unhurried opening sequences of the first two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter.)

Our immersion in the quotidian reality of the Buchman family greatly heightens our emotional response to Kym, Rachel's estranged younger sister, whose arrival home for the wedding on a weekend leave from rehab disrupts the family's strenuous efforts to cover over the anger and grief that radiate from a tragic event in their past. As many critics have noted, Anne Hathaway's performance as Kym is extremely strong, but so are those of Bill Irwin, who plays Kym's and Rachel's father as an endearingly decent man who wants above all else to protect himself and the ones he loves from pain, and Debra Winger, who does wonders with the small but crucially important role of Kym's superficially supportive but ultimately disengaged and emotionally remote mother. By the time of the final credits, as Kym heads back to rehab and the rest of the family begins to settle back into its normal routines, we feel we've learned something universal about human suffering and regret from having witnessed one family's efforts to struggle through them with as much dignity and grace as they can muster.

Happy-Go-Lucky focuses on very different but no less profound issues of human life -- in particular, on the mysteriousness of happiness. On one level, the film's title describes the cloudlessly sunny disposition of the movie central character, the fittingly named Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), who bounces effervescently through her life as an elementary school teacher in North London with a constant spring in her step and smile on her face. But the title also refers to the elusive and seemingly significant connection between happiness and luck. The two concepts share etymological roots, and sometimes even get expressed with the same word, in many languages. We usually assume that the concepts are linked by the dependence of happiness on luck. Yet writer and director Mike Leigh clearly means us to ponder the possibility that it can work the other way around -- that those who assume the best of others, who look on the bright side of life, and who enjoy the simple pleasures of being in the world might be better equipped to flourish and thrive. What if happiness, in other words, can produce its own luck?  

Given the subject-matter, one might expect the film to end up being unbearably cloying and cute -- a cockney version of Amelie perhaps. That's certainly what I expected. But remarkably, Leigh manages to balance Poppy's sweetness with the toughness that the best of his previous films (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) have conditioned us to expect from him. Sure, there are moments when we roll our eyes and find ourselves becoming annoyed at Poppy's giggling and silliness. Yet we also notice that this is precisely the way many of the people in Poppy's life react to her, lashing out with an unattractive mixture of jealousy, envy, and resentment -- and even, in the case of Poppy's terrifyingly volatile driving instructor (played by Eddie Marsan, in an explosive performance), furious hatred. Nothing, it seems, is quite so effective at making us unhappy -- or at showing us how unhappy we've been all along -- than observing someone else's happiness up close.

But as powerful and moving as these two movies are, neither of them can compare to the emotional and intellectual power of the third and best film -- Synecdoche, New York. The latter is so much stranger and so much more outrageously ambitious than either of the other movies that it seems unjust to measure them by the same standard. For all their accomplishments, Rachel Getting Married and Happy-Go-Lucky use traditional narrative structures to explore traditional psychological themes. Synecdoche, by contrast, abandons traditional narrative and adopts in its place a sort of extra-rational dream logic that plunges us into the darkest depths of its protagonist's psyche. Imagine the greatest films of mid-period Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry) crossed with the haunting, apocalyptic incoherence of Beckett's Endgame and you'll begin to sense what writer and director Charlie Kaufman has achieved with this astonishing film. (Kaufman's complex and inventive scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were in many ways a preparation for Synecdoche, but they only hinted at its scope and creativity.)

David Lynch tried for something along these lines in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, but the effect was far less moving because the characters never felt, or behaved, like real human beings; instead, they acted like specimens in a cinematic experiment. The result was impressive, but only in a technical sense. Synecdoche is technically impressive, too -- and all the more so because it's Kaufman's directorial debut -- but the execution at every point is placed at the service of exploring one man's conscious and unconscious life in almost obsessive detail.

The man is playwright Caden Cotard (played by the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman). As the film opens, Caden's marriage to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is falling apart. By the film's 30-minute mark, she's fled to Europe with their four-year-old daughter Olive, leaving Caden to cope on his own with an ever-growing list of mysterious and alarming medical conditions, but also freeing him up (with the help of a conveniently timed Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation) to devote his life to producing a truly great work of art.

Over the next 90 minutes, which cover nearly fifty years of time, Caden's father dies, his mother dies, Olive dies, Adele dies; he remarries, gets divorced, and has affairs with other women. And all the while, his play -- mounted in an impossibly enormous warehouse in Manhattan's theatre district -- grows ever more elaborate and self-referential. (It becomes, in other words, a synecdoche.) In the film's final moments, as the world outside the warehouse collapses into some unspecified cataclysm, we observe an elderly Caden spending every moment of the last years of his life playing the part of a cleaning woman within his own play, taking stage directions through an earpiece from a woman playing the part of the play's director.

And this is just the barest outline of what happens in the film, nearly every scene of which contains some unforgettable image or rationally inexplicable event. Months of time elapse in single scenes. Adele's paintings, which are roughly the size of postage stamps at the beginning of the film, become impossibly tiny later on, requiring gallery-goers to don specially designed magnifying-glass headpieces in order to view them. One character purchases and then lives for decades in a burning house. Another, seen stalking Caden throughout the first hour of the film, ends up playing the part of Caden in Caden's own play. Answering-machine greetings go unchanged for decades. Caden reads entries in Olive's abandoned diary written years after she's disappeared with her mother. A three-second phone call informing Caden of the death of his father conveys so much information about how he died that it takes him nearly a minute to convey it to his companion. And on and on -- with all of it, somehow, making intuitive emotional sense and touching us deeply.

What does it all add up to? More than I can possibly convey in this already-too-long blog post. I'll simply refer back to something I said earlier about Rachel Getting Married -- that it teaches us something universal by focusing so intently on particulars. That's what Synecdoche does, and with greater power and resonance than most films manage to do. By delving so deeply into the mind of a single man -- even one as personally and physically repellant as Caden Cotard -- the film comes admirably close to achieving something that Caden himself strives to achieve with his own art. As Caden puts it toward the end of the movie, there are countless millions of people in the world, and yet "none of [them] is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due." They have to be given their due -- in all of their loves and fears, in all of their hopes and ambitions, in all of their accomplishments and failures, in all of their suffering and regrets. It's an impossible goal, of course, but one that all artists -- at least those working in memetic forms and traditions -- intuitively long to realize. That in his directorial debut Charlie Kaufman has come so close to achieving it, and by such wildly creative means, is very good news indeed for those who care about excellence in art and excellence in film.