Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a strong performance—indeed, the one performance of his I know of, despite having seen him in many films, in a wide variety of roles—as middle-aged regional theater director Caden Cotard, whose health is in shambles, without the benefit of any certain diagnosis, and whose wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener, adept), is a gifted painter who abandons him, taking their 4-year-old daughter, Olive, with her to Berlin, where the art scene makes her a celebrity, and her new partner, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh, marvelous), fills a growing Olive with hateful lies about her father, who tries desperately over the years to find her. Meanwhile, a “genius grant” allows Caden to exchange Schenectady for New York City, where he spends a lifetime working on a “truthful” play based on his messy life. His “theater” is a Manhattan warehouse in which a life-sized replica of New York City, with its warehouse inside the warehouse inside the warehouse, and so forth, makes him, like Adele, a sort of miniaturist. But the line between reality and its representation has grown indistinct, and “truth” grows elusive. When he is reunited with his daughter, who is a tattooed lesbian dying of cancer, Caden “confesses” to a secret gay encounter he has never had in order to make reality conform to his daughter’s dreams—and that pepetual fire in loyal Hazel’s house that never quite burns down the place: what are we to make of that? Gloomy, obsessed with dying and death, Caden never commits himself to Hazel, his heart’s desire, the reflection of his being her heart’s desire. Or, as Tennyson might put it: Mirrors, each opposing each.
Along the way to his own death, Caden remarries, hires a man (who has been shadowing him for decades) to play him in the play, and exchanges identities with Adele’s former cleaning woman in the play (Dianne Wiest, hilarious) who becomes the director’s director—God, even—who instructs Caden what to say and what to do through an earpiece. In short, reality and theater have become so confused that Caden is no longer himself. Or is that what we all become?
Written by Charlie Kaufman, Schenectady, New York is Kaufman’s first directorial effort. It is his best film, with its air and trappings of Jacques Rivette, its Woody Allen-hints (especially Manhattan, 1979), its Kafka and its Borges, its Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. It is brilliant—an initially depressing marital drama that gradually blossoms into something engrossing, tantalizing and heartfelt: the spectacle of how we disappoint others and others disappoint us: a sublime comedy about the search for “reality” and “truth,” which we find, if at all, perhaps only because we construct them according to our fantasies and dreams.
Samantha Morton plays Hazel. She is a bit of heaven on Earth.
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