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.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
December 11, 2003 1:48pm EST
Remember that movie about a high school geek who gets the most popular girl in school to be his girlfriend to boost his own image only to discover that fitting in isn't worth sacrificing his individuality? Or was that a Saved by the Bell episode? Love Don't Cost a Thing is the latest teen comedy to follow that formula to a fault: Alvin Johnson (Nick Cannon) is an outcast teen with no style and he's ready to do anything to shed his nerdy image. Even his father (Steve Harvey) an old-school ladies' man wishes the boy would get out and socialize more. So when the popular Paris Morgan (Christina Millian) wrecks her mother's Cadillac Escalade Alvin an amateur mechanic offers to fix the vehicle and pay for the parts if she will pretend to be his girlfriend for two weeks. A haircut and several Sean John warm-up suits later Alvin becomes "Al " an ultra-smooth guy who's "got all the 411s." Of course Paris starts to fall for Al who's too busy keeping up his "big pimpin'" facade to notice. But after alienating everyone close to him including his childhood friends stylin' Al learns a valuable lesson about being himself.
Cannon's performance in Love Don't Cost a Thing falls short of the impressive one he delivered in the musical drama Drumline--his first lead role in a feature film. Here it's impossible to sympathize with the 23-year-old Cannon's clownish character even when he is needlessly bullied by jocks. With his crazy uneven Afro and spastic walk even Molly Ringwald's goody-good character Samantha in Sixteen Candles might be tempted to point and laugh. But while the movie's hero doesn't score many points other characters do notably Al's gal pal Paris played by songwriter/actress Millian who has written songs for Ja Rule and appeared as a guest on several TV shows including Charmed and The Steve Harvey Show. She delivers a very sincere performance as the "frappuccino with hips " and although audiences should despise her character for prostituting her popularity and lying to just about everybody Millian manages to morph Paris into a likeable personality--and we can't help but go along for the ride. But mustachioed comic Harvey steals the show as Al's loveable father Clarence a man who still boogies to his 8-track collection and gives his son very valuable life advice including how to open a condom wrapper using only one hand.
Writer/director Troy Beyer's Love Don't Cost a Thing is so visually horrendous that it should have been called This Film Didn't Cost a Thing. Beyer who directed the dire 1998 comedy Let's Talk About Sex and penned the even worse 1997 B.A.P.S. doesn't much improve her track record in 2003. Her guidance here including sound light and action is so amateurish that the film seems unfinished. An outdoor party scene for example is so dark it's difficult to make out the characters on screen and in another scene inside the school the sound is so muffled the character's lines are barely audible. Beyer's screenplay adapted from the mind-numbingly bad 1987 comedy Can't Buy Me Love doesn't help matters either; most of the characters remain as shallow and label-obsessed as they were 15 years ago. And while there have been countless Hollywood films revolving around the same theme many have done so successfully including the aforementioned oldie Sixteen Candles and more recently The New Guy.