Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
The first Santa Clause had a somewhat clever premise on how an ordinary guy can become Santa Claus just by putting on the red suit while the second Clause was about finding a Mrs. Claus. What’s the third clause? The Escape Clause which allows anyone who is Santa the option to give it all up and become a mortal man again. Of course Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) aka the current Santa has no intentions of leaving the job. But his lovely wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) is expecting their first child and missing home a great deal so Scott has to juggle having his in-laws (Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret) come to the North Pole--which he has to disguise as Canada to keep the “Secret of Santa” alive--with getting ready for Christmas. It’s kind of hectic. And throwing a huge wrench in the whole deal is the envious Jack Frost (Martin Short). Relegated as the “opening act” to Christmas Frost wants his own gig and sabotages Scott at every turn in order to steal the job away from him. There’s no nipping at your nose with this guy; it’s all-out war. Allen makes no apologies for his career. Why should he? He’s been moderately successful playing everyday dads in Disney comedies displaying the right mix of milquetoast-iness and humor. Plus as Scott/Santa he also gets to be sentimental. I just wonder if he still wouldn’t like to do something more cutting edge? Short on the other hand never could find the right kind of starring vehicle for himself but instead has created some hilarious supporting characters (if you don’t believe me rent The Big Picture). Jack Frost is another one to add to the list. The comedian has way too much fun playing the nasty ice man with steely blue eyes a smart--if frosty--three-piece suit and who gets to say lines like “I invented ‘Chill!’” Mitchell (TV’s Lost) reprises her role as the sweet-as-pie Mrs. Claus and has some nice moments with Scott. And what a surprise to see Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret in this! They are perfect as the meddling in-laws especially Arkin who finds everything wrong with Scott and his “toy factory.” Buena Vista didn’t feel it was necessary to pre-screen Santa Clause 3 for critics. They probably believe the audiences for this franchise is already built in and they don’t need jaded critics slamming the film for being silly and meaningless. Smart. But as much as it pains me to say it Santa Clause 3 directed by Michael Lembeck (who did Santa Clause 2) really isn’t that awful. Yes it’s all terribly predictable with the schmaltz so thick you could cut it with a knife. But there’s also something surprisingly endearing about these movies. They have always provided a sort of warm family-friendly feel without too much forced circumstances—and most importantly they are legitimate Christmas movies--even its being released just as we are putting away the Halloween decorations. Honestly I’d take a Santa Clause 3 over a Christmas with the Kranks (sorry Tim Allen) any day.