Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. USA, 2008. Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Likely Story, Projective Testing Service, Russia. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Cinematography by Frederick Elmes. Produced by Anthony Bregman, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Sidney Kimmel. Music by Jon Brion. Production Design by Mark Friedberg. Costume Design by Melissa Toth. Film Editing by Robert Frazen. Cannes Film Festival 2008. Gotham Awards 2008. Independent Spirit Awards 2008. Toronto International Film Festival 2008.
Charlie Kaufman decides to forgo the intelligent interpretations of his zany scribblings by the likes of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze and here directs for the first time. Oddly enough, the film looks and feels exactly the way it would if it were directed by the likes of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze with one marked difference: it isn’t any good. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a hypochondriac theatre director who, between bouts of obsessions over what illness he’s convinced he has, starts to wonder if he’s actually doing anything meaningful with his life. He gets to explore this possibility when the MacArthur foundation gives him a sizeable grant that he uses to build a mythical, giant studio in the middle of Manhattan’s theatre district. Inside it he spends years building a life-size replica of the city, casting various actors as people in his life and having them re-enact the things he sees and experiences and, after decades, neglects to ever invite an audience. Players in his life include Catherine Keener as his artist wife who abandons him to go live in Berlin, Michelle Williams as the actress who becomes his second wife, and Samantha Morton as the box office girl whose love for him lasts longer than any of the other relationships. Kaufman deserves points for a few aspects of this otherwise bombastic mess: thematically it’s brilliant, putting across some really fascinating ideas about perception of our own lives versus the way they are seen by others, and doing it in ways that at times strike some deep emotional chords. Getting behind the camera turns out to be a bad idea, however, as there is no one there to see the force in his brilliant writing but keep it in line so that audiences can participate in his wacky madness right alongside him. As deliciously mind-bending as all the concepts are (and by the time we get to Hoffman casting Dianne Wiest as himself I found myself praying that this truly great writer will keep on doing what he does best), he has no idea about pace or structure; the film feels like it has no idea where it’s going, takes forever to get anywhere meaningful and then draws far too slowly to a long overdue conclusion. The performances are all perfect, from the above mentioned cast members as well as Emily Watson (as the fictional Morton), Tom Noonan (as another incarnation of Hoffman) and Hope Davis.