Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Revisiting films from my DVD shelf I have not sen for a long time.
Caden Cotard is an unhappy NYC playwright, whose wife leaves him right before he wins the Macarthur Fellowship; the famed ‘genius grant’ that provides creative types with financial security to pursue ambitious projects. Channeling his angst over his divorce, and all of his many additional problems, Cotard devises the largest theatrical experience in history; recreating his world in miniature, casting actors to play everyone he has ever met, reliving every experience of his life.
Having written the mind expanding ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’, Charlie Kaufman got his first chance to direct, and didn’t hold back. Ambitious seems like an inadequate word for this densely constructed movie, that tackles the creative process, relationship dynamics, parenting, and the nature and point of existance.
The first half is almost straightforward.
Caden stages a radical interpretation of ‘Death of a Salesman’, and finds success. But his hypochondria and highly strung personality push his wife away, and she leaves to live in Europe, taking their young daughter with her. Depressed, Caden doubles down on his work; this becomes his outlet, but increasingly blurs with his own life. The overlap between fact and fiction, in relation to the artistic process, is something that has been done many times, but never as densely as this.
It starts with a mysterious older man, who appears to be shadowing Caden; when this same person is cast in Caden’s play, you realise this is actually a way of showing where ideas come from. From a flash of inspiration, in the background of his thoughts, slowly becoming more tangible as the idea takes shape, finally emerging into into the foreground as an element of his latest production.
He casts an actor to play this role, his fictionalised doppelganger. This actor then casts someone else to play HIS shadow, in the show. Life, imitates art, imitaes life, in an endless loop. Caden finds other actors to play the people he knows, and re-stages the key moments from his life. As different versions of the characters multiply, so their relationships get messy. Real people get involved with their imagined equivalents, the different realities combine and splinter, what is meant to be ‘real’ is no longer clear. Scenes that went badly in real life, are re-written with different outcomes (like an expanded and hyperactive version of that scene in ‘Annie Hall’). Caden, no longer able to stay on top of every scene in the sprawling production, loses cntrol over what is happening. Creativity is a messy, confusing business, and for Kaufman it seems to be, can only be born of chaos.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent in what must have been a very demanding role, but the film is stolen by the women that he meets and knows; Catherine Keener sharp and restless as his first wife; Michelle Williams funny and sad as his second; Emily Watson guileless as the happiest soul in the film. But the standout is Samantha Morton, who gives an all time great performance as Caden’s reluctant soul mate Hazel, a woman whose cheery veneer hides a desolate mindset.
This is personified by the house she buys, which is actually on fire and full of smoke. In one of the film’s many funny moments, she voices her concerns to the realtor; not about the fire, which no one ever mentions, but that she is worried about such a large purchase when she is single. Kaufman stated in interviews that he wanted to leave people’s interpretation of the house up to them, so here is my take: it represents the character’s mental health problems, which gradually overwhelm her. While they can be ignored, they never go away. When Hazel finally dies of ‘smoke inhalation’, after living in the burning house for forty years, everyone is surprised: who knew she was struggling?
The final section of the film largely focusses on death. The play never opens, Caden never leaves the airplane hanger sized building where it is being ‘staged’. His health fails. Most of the other characters die. The women he has loved, other than Hazel, having never seemingly aged, just disappear. A different woman, playing a third or fourth level version of Caden, replaces him as director and provides him with an earpiece through which she will now guide him through the peformance she wants him to give.
She tells him:
‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.’
It is… oppressively bleak, but weirdly thrilling. It is hard to explain how all of the inexplicable things that occur combine somehow perfectly, and how Caden driving a golf cart through a desolate wasteland and then hugging a strange woman who played his ex-wife’s mother in a dream that may never have happened, while he dies, seems somehow perfect. It is hard to explain, but that is the genius of this very unusual movie.
It is also a bold move for a film to arrive at its end, and after two complex hours sum itself up by saying: nothing you have watched really mattered. That Caden staged an elaborate play, cried during sex, pined for his daughter, spent years on failed relationships: all of these details are insignificant. If he had done completely different things, he would still have arrived at this same ending.
Everyone’s body fails.
Everyone’s loved ones depart.
Everyone is everyone.