Tag Archives: D

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

Grade: D

Until now Charlie Kaufman relied on others to bring his pretentiously convoluted scripts to the screen, but now he’s upped the ante by taking on the directorial duties himself, and the level of self-indulgence and painful obscurity has increased exponentially. From its cutesy-clever title down to a protracted and tedious finale, “Synecdoche, New York” is both interminable and terminally boring.

The basic narrative of the picture—which is something that can be described only in the loosest sense in a Kaufman movie—has to do with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the director of a modest theatre company in Schenecdaty, New York, who suddenly finds himself physically falling apart. Adding to his woes is the fact that his artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their little daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her; and a possible romantic connection with Hazel (Samantha Morton), his box-office manager, comes to nothing too.

Things change when he receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant that he decides to use to create a life-mirroring play in which a huge troupe of actors will perform simultaneous scenes in a miniature of New York City that he constructs in a massive warehouse. His preparations for the venture go on for years, during which time he hires a strange fellow (Tom Noonan) who’s been following him around surreptitiously to play Caden himself, and an actress (Emily Watson) to play Hazel. He also eventually hires a woman (Diane Wiest) to play a cleaning woman—he’s obsessed with cleaning, it seems, and often sees himself in that role—but eventually she’ll rise to a more important role. The play, of course, is always being rehearsed and never being performed, as Caden grows older and feebler and must deal with the passing of his parents and the travails of the grown-up Olive while having to confront his own imminent mortality.

How much of this is supposed to represent reality and how much Caden’s artistic vision or psychological hallucination is anybody’s guess. But clearly what Kaufman’s trying to get at is the inevitability of decrepitude and death and the necessity for each of us to come to terms with it. As the titular part of speech suggests, Caden represents every man, just as his model represents Manhattan and his play represents human life and so on. The doubling effect also extends into what little we see of the play, which reflects “actual” experiences and, of course, features “fictional” equivalents of the author and other “real” people. And it’s a commentary on how art is essentially a torturously reductionist process, a point made not only by Caden’s mini-New York but by Adele’s tiny paintings, which are so small one has to look through a magnifying glass to see them.

There are a few moments in “Synecdoche” that afford the sort of weird, quirkily amusing nonsense that Kaufman revels in. The initial conversations with little Olive, for instance, are pretty funny, and the scene of Mr. Cotard’s funeral (featuring a coffin reminiscent of the joke at the end of Bryan Forbes’s priceless comedy “The Wrong Box”) is a briefly brilliant bit of black comedy. But for the most part the picture is a glum and dreary disquisition on the desperation of the human condition and the ultimate futility of the artistic impulse, presented in a maddeningly ponderous style. It grows so irritatingly opaque and heavy over the course of two hours that you may come to feel that one of its odder moments—in which Hazel and her husband purchase a burning house and move into it despite its being filled with smoke—might be taken as an apt analogy for the act of buying a ticket for the movie and settling in to watch it.

Given all that, it hardly seems to make much difference that Kaufman has assembled an imposing cast to flesh out his ideas. This isn’t one of Hoffman’s best performances—the character is far too drab and sullen for him really to shine—but he does his best with it, which is all one can ask. Among the others, Morton and Watson come off best, but even they often look puzzled by what they’re asked to do. Keener, as has been the case so frequently of late, is pretty much wasted. You have to give production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Adam Stockhausen and the visual effects team led by Mark Russell high marks for accomplishing so much on what was probably a very limited budget, but Fred Elmes’s cinematography could have used a dash of imagination, and Jon Brion’s score doesn’t register very strongly.

One can appreciate the effort of any artist to think so large as to try to encompass The Meaning of Life in his work. But all that Kaufman seems to conclude on the subject is a much more elaborate version of the old nostrum that life’s a bitch and then you die. As a result, in the case of “Synecdoche, New York”—to garble Plato’s version of Socrates—the examined life is not worth watching.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

Stephen Sommers, the mastermind behind the first “Mummy” movie in 1999 and its equally dumb but successful 2001 sequel, has gone AWOL on this third installment, handing over the reins to writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and director Rob Cohen. But despite the change in creative talent—and one in locale, too—“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” isn’t much different from its predecessors. It’s a loud, silly bit of non-stop action that again comes off like a poor cousin of the “Indiana Jones” flicks—a copy of a bargain-basement ’forties serial, a genre even whose best representatives were pretty chintzy.

One might have expected better of Gough and Millar, the co-creators of “Smallville” who have shown a good deal of inventiveness and imagination in their reshaping of the Clark Kent mythology. But though they’ve moved the plot from Egypt to China (something that, in the context of the title, doesn’t make an awful lot of sense), otherwise they haven’t brought much to the party. To be sure, they’ve added a father-son rivalry subplot (which frankly makes it awfully reminiscent of the “Crystal Skull” template). But for the most part they’ve just string together a chain of hackneyed action episodes, each featuring some juvenile humor. And in the process they’ve committed a cardinal sin in such stuff—changing the rules at every step, or simply announcing new ones, so that the silliness doesn’t even possess a loony internal logic. Given the pedigree, this script is very weak.

Less is anticipated of director Rob Cohen, whose last foray into this kind of mindlessly hyperkinetic stuff was “Stealth.” He doesn’t disappoint one’s low expectations, shoveling out a succession of action set-pieces in which he hands over much of the responsibility to his CGI crew while spending most of his energy simply keeping his human actors properly in frame. And the effects are frankly not much to write home about. They’re certainly plentiful, but hardly impressive. A bunch of yeti come across as nearly comical, as do hordes of terra-cotta soldiers and an army of skeletons (a nod to Harryhausen, presumably). But the nadir is probably the simplest—an old airplane that actually looks like a model glued together from a hobby shop kit.

As to plot, it’s pretty lunatic. In a long prologue we’re told of power-hungry Chinese emperor Han (Jet Li), who built the Great Wall on the bones of his defeated enemies but fell afoul of fate when he tried to become immortal. He had his General Ming (Russell Wong) seek out beautiful witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to learn the secret of eternal life, but in his lust for her reacted with customary cruelty when she and Ming fell in love: he killed the general and attempted the same with her, but she imprisoned him, turned into stone, in a tomb with thousands of his soldiers, where he awaits release so that he can resume his campaigns of ruthless conquest.

Enter Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford), the handsome, ambitious son of Rick and Evelyn (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz), who’s dug up Han’s tomb. (The year is 1946.) His parents, who’ve been unaware that Alex has even left college, arrive in China, where Evelyn’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) runs a nightclub, on an intelligence mission and take their son to task. But before they’ve even gotten reacquainted, nasty General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) breaks up the reunion by trying to kill off the family and resuscitating Han. From there on it’s a race to Shangri La in the Himalayas, where Han must bathe in the magic waters to be restored to full immortal form, and thence to the Great Wall, which Han’s invincible terra-cotta soldiers must cross in order to become human again. Rick, Evelyn and Alex join forces to stop his dastardly plan, which—no surprise here—they do, with the help of their allies: the reluctant Jonathan; Zi Juan, who herself is immortal; her lovely daughter Lin (Isabella Leong), who’s been entrusted with the only dagger that can kill Han and serves as a love interest for Alex; a wild-eyed pilot named Mad Dog (Liam Cunningham); and those aforementioned yeti and skeletons, one of whom is actually the long-dead General Ming.

There’s a half-hearted attempt to insert some humanity into all this ruckus—Rick has to bond with Alex, with whom he’s had a rather frosty relationship, and at one point he apparently sacrifices his own life for his son. But all the characters remain cartoon figures fighting and joking their way through ridiculous circumstances, and like “The Mummy Returns” before it, “Dragon Emperor” feels like a video game projected onto a big screen. The cast largely disappears in the morass. Fraser is all manic energy and wide-eyed amazement, Bello tries to maintain her aristocratic dignity with little success, Hannah mugs ferociously and Ford is stalwart but wooden. Yeoh and Leong fare somewhat better—perhaps because they seem rather bemused by the absurdity going on around them. Jet Li, on the other hand, just glowers and sneers through a thoroughly thankless role.

It’s possible to get some amusement from the very cheesiness of “Dragon King”—the sets are garishly tacky, the exteriors almost comically phony, the model work and computer animation shamelessly low-grade. And though Simon Duggan’s cinematography puts them all in the best possible light, it can’t hide the lapses, and Randy Edelman’s score accentuates the shabbiness by relying too heavily on genre tropes. They’re all part of a package that oozes mediocrity from every frame. In an era when people have come to expect more from action movies like “The Dark Knight,” “The Mummy” tries to survive on less. It should never have been disinterred.