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.
This was no college like I ever attended! Take three typical high-school seniors--the nerd (Kevin Covais) the good-looking Regular Guy (Drake Bell) and the hell-for-leather go-for-broke Horny Fat Guy (Andy Caldwell)--and let them loose during freshman orientation at fictional Fieldmont University. Just add beer marijuana and wild sex and you’ve got what may well be a new Frat House Classic one that adheres studiously to the tenets of the teen-comedy genre which also includes defying authority and destruction of public property. When it comes to the so-called “guilty pleasures” of 2008 this makes the Dean’s List. Like any good college hangover you’ll hate yourself in the morning--but you’ll still be laughing. Credit an enthusiastic cast and a refreshing (but quite appropriate) disregard for the rules. Drake Bell (of Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh fame) who looks far too old to be contemplating a college career is ostensibly the leading man here. Yet the principal selling point of the film is the onscreen camaraderie between he and co-stars Caldwell who plays it full-tilt a la John Belushi and Chris Farley (and that is meant as a compliment) but holds back enough when the ensemble demands require and Covais who all but steals the film with a smart shrewd take on the big-screen geek. A good deal of the film’s energy can be traced directly to them. The whole show is the three boys and they have a great easy rapport that transcends many of the worst trappings of a film like this. They feel like friends and that goes a very long way in a film that in some ways doesn’t deserve so rich an effort but benefits from it nonetheless. College marks the feature debut of director Deb Hagan who manages at times to give the film a fresh visual perspective while maintaining a relaxed but steady momentum. College is neither original nor good but it is enjoyable (far more so than would be expected) and it is fast-paced. It also delivers exactly what it promises. If it’s bang for the buck you want it’s bang for the buck you got when you enroll in College.
In Norway Iowa (pop. 586) baseball is what you do by default—there apparently aren’t too many options. It is either baseball or gas-station get-togethers according to the (true) story in The Final Season. Set in 1991 the town’s high school baseball team the Tigers has amassed 19 State Championships in 22 years and it is the community’s heart and soul. So when a move is put in place to merge the team with another school’s for budgetary reasons the townsfolk are understandably outraged. As a nail in the coffin the team’s longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe) is to be replaced by his much-younger and -less-experienced assistant Kent Stock (Sean Astin) for the final season. Suddenly everyone sours on their team and its chances of notching that 20th title. But what they don't know is that there is a diamond-in-the-rough catcher (Michael Angarano) who has just moved into town—as a punishment by his dad (Tom Arnold)—and that Stock is every bit as determined as Coach Van Scoyoc to continue Norway’s winning tradition. It initially takes some time for the players to warm up to their new coach but after a while… Oh you know the drill. The updated score in Sean Astin’s sports-movie career: football 1 baseball 0. The well-traveled actor can’t quite do for Season what he did for Rudy partly because this movie is cheesy beyond repair. But Astin who also executive-produced is by far the film’s biggest asset both on and off screen. He soldiers on as Coach Stock brimming with realistic enthusiasm and fortitude perhaps to spite the woeful script. Fellow veteran actor Boothe (Sin City) rounds out Season’s two bright spots as the pitch-perfect embodiment of a baseball sage who doesn’t waste words. But he and Astin don’t fit in this movie for reasons of authenticity or lack thereof on the others’ part. That includes onetime Next Big Thing Rachael Leigh Cook who plays Astin’s much-too-cutesy love interest; Tom Arnold striking out in a role that is (mercifully!) a near cameo; and Angarano (Sky High) who gives a performance that is heavy on cliché and light on realism. Like the movie itself. It’s hard to imagine even the youngest of viewers being able to resist sarcastic laughter throughout The Final Season—that’s just the degree of its corn. Almost everything is wrong here and the result is a nearly two-hour cliché whose transparency knows no age boundaries. Both director David M. Evans (The Sandlot of course) and writers Art D'Alessandro and James Grayford seem to only be concerned with concocting unnecessary melodrama. Most of the movie’s story for example is a highly fictionalized addendum to the less-cinematic true story on which it is based. And one scene early on serves as a microcosm of the director’s contrived efforts and forced cheese: After Angarano’s Mitch plunks his classmate/teammate with a Wiffle ball Evans cues music so heavy you’d think you were watching the climax of Mystic River. It’s utterly laughable and indicative of Evans’ many missteps. As for the baseball scenes they look sufficient when shown but Final Season is so much less a sports movie than it is the feel-good stuff of Disney TV movies—nay Disney cartoons.