Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche,New York and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married are vivid, bustling movies, rich with brilliant scenes and a tart sense of the absurd. But at their center is a character who suffers acutely the inexorable pain of life—the kind that wakes you up at night and sometimes gets compressed into a catastrophic act. Synecdoche's subtitle could be "Life is hard, then you die"; Rachel Getting Married gives you hell yet celebrates redemption. Maybe it's seasoning. The most soulful of directors, Demme has made movies for nearly 35 years, ranging from the antic comedy of Melvin and Howard (1980)—see it for Mary Steenburgen's fierce and funny nude scene—to the knife-in-the-heart bleakness of Philadelphia (1993). By contrast, the shy, cerebral Kaufman, famous for the wildly imaginative scripts of Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Adaptation. (2002), makes his directing debut with Synecdoche, New York.
Even more self-referential than Adaptation., with its competitive screenwriting twins named Kaufman, Synecdoche is the mad scribe's most ambitious screenplay yet, starting with that tongue-tripping title—sih-NECK-duh-ke—a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole or the whole for a part (e.g., "wheels" for car or "the law" for police officer). It's a pun on Schenectady, the unfashionable New York city where the action takes place. At Cannes, the movie drew ecstatic raves and baffled gripes with its tale of a depressed theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who, dumped as an unoriginal bore by his artist wife (Catherine Keener), wins a MacArthur genius grant and spends his life trying to make a masterpiece of his own design. (Any resemblance of Hoffman to Kaufman is surely intentional.) But Synecdoche isn't baffling, just packed to distraction with eccentric details, like the tiny, banal paintings that make Keener an art star in Europe, where she sets up house with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who develops a German accent. The movie is full of women (but little sex), including Michelle Williams as the playwright's second wife, Hope Davis as his fame-hungry therapist, Samantha Morton as his faithful assistant, and Emily Watson as Morton's actress-doppelgänger in Hoffman's play. Looking creepily alike, they're Kaufman's nod to the instability of identity. Synecdoche is a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine to be enjoyed for its sly wit and ingenuity. But the playwright's endless struggle to get things right is the movie's reigning metaphor, expressed in his refrain, "Okay, now I see how to do this." Unremarkable at first, with repetition his hopeful cry turns comical, then, as time runs out, as it must for all of us, stabbingly sad.
Watching Synecdoche, New York, you're always in Kaufmanville, a stylized universe that keeps its fictional distance yet retains the power to tap your emotions. Demme, who coproduced Adaptation., can be playful too. But he won a directing Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and flashed his documentary chops with the vibrant Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988), finding the unquenchable spirit in the most abused country on earth. Under his direction, Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks have given their best performances. All his gifts come together in Rachel Getting Married, a thrilling harmonic convergence of a movie. Based on a savvy first script by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney, granddaughter of Lena Horne), it immerses you in an anguished, transcendent weekend with the Buchmans: father Paul (Bill Irwin), stepmother Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), daughter Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and black sheep Kym (Anne Hathaway), a chronic junkie who's home for the wedding from her latest rehab. Music abounds, thanks to the friends of groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of the Brooklyn band TV on the Radio), whose multiculti jamming, rehearsing, and creative noodling provide the captivating soundtrack.
Filmed with an intimate looseness, Rachel Getting Married has exhilarating ensemble scenes, none more than the wedding itself. But the addict in a family exerts a centrifugal force, so the Buchmans revolve around Kym. She's where the scary action is, squabbling with her sister's best friend (Anisa George) over being maid of honor, fighting with her smiling, distant mother (Debra Winger), or driving somebody's car straight into a tree. This role is a big advance for Hathaway, although she put a down payment on it in Brokeback Mountain. Her Kym isn't a tour de force. She's too real for that, an all too human monster, the family id and bearer of old wounds, perp and victim both. Even her quiet is extreme, her gaze inward and transfixed as if she were seeing something so awful, it won't let her look away. What that is emerges in a family scene so raw and real that we can't look away, either. But this is no Hollywood aha moment. Demme knows that while the past may be another country, we carry its wounds with us. Rachel Getting Married has a wild Blakean expansiveness: Like life itself, it contains
both heaven and hell.