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Surprises, Cutting Both Ways


On the one hand, I fully expected to love Synecdoche, New York. Dargis’s rave (though an outlier) seemed persuasive enough, I liked the premise since I first heard about, liked many of Kaufman’s previous scripts very much, and loved the cast. This feeling persisted for the promising first half-hour, and I continued to root for it after it started to become tedious. By the end, though, rather than being charitable about this failed project, I ended up disliking it more than its many flaws probably warranted. Admittedly, this is partly a strong personal aversion to the kind of bullying, formless, self-indulgent “creativity” — in the last half of this picture reminiscent of Gilliam or Burton at their worst — that seems to demand that you respect the filmmaker’s inventiveness while skipping over questions about whether said inventiveness is communicating anything of interest or serving any actual artistic purpose. Kaufman’s oversize ambitions can be charming, but this project goes off the rails and seems interminable at 120 minutes. While Being John Malkovich in particular made the difficult combination of clever whimsy and emtional pain and cruelty work with surprising effectiveness, here it just doesn’t. Without any characters to work with — even with those gamely played by Hoffman and Morton, we don’t learn anything interesting about them that wasn’t already clear a quarter of the way into the picture — the failure ratio of the whimsical gestures is high and the ongoing succession of death and illness and heartbreak has increasingly little emotional impact. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he needs a Jonze or Gondry to act as a counterweight.

On the other hand, I was very skeptical about Revolutionary Road. The reason for this was that I recently re-watched American Beauty, and was amazed by how bad it was. The Chris Cooper stuff was obviously terrible on first viewing, but on the second I found even a lot of what I liked or tolerated the first time unbearable. So I was worried that Sam Mendes would ruin Yates’s brilliant novel. But he doesn’t — it’s a very good and faithful adaptation. Although some reviewers have said that Revolutionary Road is the umpteenth hell-is-the-suburbs movie, this is misleading. It’s true that Yates saw sterility in the suburbs (which he also saw in Manhattan), and perhaps this attracted Mendes to the material. But while American Beauty is the common good-man-ruined-by-the-suburbs-and-his-shrewish-wife (with the misogyny, it should be noted, much more developed than the anti-suburbia — it’s not clear in the end exactly what the suburbs prevented Lester from doing) — narrative, Revolutionary Road is something different and much more interesting: Frank is a man who frequently recites cliches about the suburbs and the duties of family to conceal that there’s no there there, and April (far from bringing him down) sets the destructive Paris idea in motion because she also needs to convince herself that Frank has a depth that doesn’t actually exist. Mendes executes this very well, and he’s always been good with actors. The main flaws of the movie simply result from the fundamental problems of adapting a good novel — it’s less rich, and one misses great set pieces like the description of Frank’s strategies for putting off responsibilities at the office or the cruelty with which he dismisses the uncomfortable truths of his mistress’ roommate. I think the decision not to replace Yates’s free-indirect prose with voice-over narration was sound, but this results in some crucial information being lost (if possible, I would urge reading the novel first.) But there are also improvements. The always tiresome “crazy”-person-who-is-actually-the-sane-one device, by far the weakest part of the novel, is actually better here, partly because Shannon’s nomination was richly merited and partly because in the compressed format of the film his assessments of Frank and April are less redundant. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly far better than the one that won Mendes his Oscar.

I was pleasantly surprised by Frost/Nixon too, but I’ll leave that for later. I suppose it could be argued that I should be more open-minded about Benjamin Button, but seriously — this kind of dialogue (and viewers of the film have informed me of even worse examples) is either the foundation of 1)a brutally funny Forrest Gump parody or 2)a terrible movie. And I don’t think anybody claims that it’s #1…

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