Charlie Kaufman

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.3 Synecdoche New York (2008)
7.0 Anomalisa (2015)
7.0 I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Charlie Kaufman, who had scripted Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999) and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), debuted as a director with Synecdoche New York (2008). There is probably a masterpiece inside this film but Kaufman doesn't quite achieve it. The first part of the film is a superficial survey of Caden's failing marriage and of his failing health. Both are presented in a matter of factual manner, without melodrama (and, alas, via a frustrating dialogues that is often barely whispered). The rest of the film follows him as a mysterious disease is slowly but steadily killing him and as he falls into an increasingly irreversible form of insanity. His goal is now to recreate his life but not to change it, simply to indulge in a masochistic replay of everything that caused his unhappiness. Here the film feels fragmented, unfinished, sloppily scripted. As both a scriptwriter and a director Kaufman seems to have a firmer hand towards the end of the film, although inconsistencies abound. The tragedy of the man who hires the very person who will direct the rest of his life and will decide when he has to die is not fully fleshed out, but left as a hurried conclusion, almost as if someone had fast forwarded one hour of film skipping many essential scenes. Caden has a freak accident in the bathroom that almost costs him his eyes. Caden is a theater director, devoted to his job. At one point he is reading a newspaper and its date changes within seconds from September 22 to October 14. His wife Adele is also very busy with her work and neglects both him and their daughter Olive. They are seeing a therapist, Madeline, because their marriage is not going well, and Adele does not hide the fact that she fantasizes about Caden dying so that she can starts her life anew from scratch. Eventually she leaves him. She is a successful painter featured in a magazine. He, on the other hand, falls into depression and has to go to the hospital for epileptic seizures. Nonetheless, he could have company because there are two women who have a crush on him: his sexy actress Claire and a girl who works at the theater, Hazel. He tries to make love to Hazel but he can't, one reason being that he is afraid that he is dying. One surprising event changes his life: Caden is awarded a major literary prize that comes with a lot of money. Meanwhile, his wife moved to Germany and every year on his daughter's birthday Caden stands in line at the post office to ship a birthday gift. He decides to spend all his money on a gargantuan production: a life-size reproduction of his neighborhood with dozens of actors playing its inhabitants with absolute fidelity to the real lives. In his introductory speech Caden tells the actors that the theme is simple: "everybody has to die". For that purpose he rents a colossal warehouse and starts hiring the actors. His mission is rudely interrupted when he spots in a magazine a photo of his daughter Olive tattoed from head to toe. He immediately flies to Germany, tracks down Adele, and manages to talk to Maria, the young woman who has become Olive's main influence. It is Maria who tattoed Olive, and she finds nothing wrong with it. When Caden loses his temper and attacks her as a child molester, Maria replies that Olive is no longer the four-year old he rememberes: six years have gone by. Back home, Caden resumes his work around the colossal set while seeing one doctor after the other for the various illnesses that progressively weaken him. He even tries to jump from a balcony to his death. Finally, he makes love to Claire. Then he's informed that his father died, devoured by cancer. At the funeral they use a tiny coffin because, his mother informs him, there was nothing left of the man. In between tragedies, doctors and the set, Caden also reads the diary of daughter, and we hear her reading it in a stark German accent. He travels again to Germany to find her in a strip club, a tattoed naked girl behind a glass wall. When he starts screaming at her, he is thrown out by the bouncer. Back home, he tells his actors that he wants someone to play him (Caden) and his own misearable existence. Hazel, fired from her job, who is now married with four children, begs him for a job and he takes her as his assistant. One day the ideal man for playing Caden shows up: Sammy, an elderly man who confesses has been following Caden for twenty years. Caden asks him to play himself with Claire, who is now his wife. Time flies. After years and years of rehearsals, one of the actors finally asks Caden, "When do we get an audience?" Caden finds out that his ex-wife lives nearby (or he imagines it) and takes the place of her cleaning maid Ellen, but initially doesn't tell Claire. Adele leaves notes for Ellen and Caden obeys them. (We are not told if a real Ellen exists). One day on stage Sammy, playing Caden, tells Claire that Caden has been going to Adele's place to clean it, which is the truth, and Claire gets furious at the real Caden. The real Caden and Hazel witness the argument. Claire breaks down and walks away from him, both on stage and in real life. Caden coldly orders to build walls around the multi-story set to make it even more realistic: the actors will now be invisible. Now there is also an actress playing Hazel, Tammy. Meanwhile, he continues to clean Adele's apartment obeying the notes left by Adele for Ellen; and he continues reading his daughter's diary, and thus learns that Olive is (again we hear it told by her in a German accent). A much older Caden now flies again to Germany and visits his dying daughter. (The dialogue takes place thanks to a futuristic machine that translates automatically German to English and viceversa). He then learns that Maria has convinced Olive that Caden abandoned her for a gay lover. Olive demands that Caden apologizes, and Caden does. It is an infection caused by Maria's tatoos that is killing Olive, and it is Maria's lies that have killed her love for her father. The homosexual, in reality, is Maria, who has seduced Olive all along. Olive, however, is sincerely in love with Maria, and dies professing her love for Maria and her hatred for her father. Back home, now Sammy is the director, Tammy plays Hazel, and someone else plays Sammy, while Caden just walks around, melancholy as ever. Caden is now looking for someone to play Adele's cleaning lady Ellen and hires Millicent. Caden gets jealous that Sammy hits on the real Hazel instead of the actress playing Hazel, Tammy. Hazel actually likes Sammy's attentions and seems to take revenge on Caden who had preferred Claire over her. Caden's mother is murdered and another funeral takes place. Claire shows up but Hazel is out on a date with Sammy. Caden and Claire visit his mother's apartment, still a mess, blood all over the murder scene. He cries while she undresses to go to bed. He weeps "Can you understand loneliness?" before having sex with her. When he meets Hazel on the set again, Hazel boasts of how nice Sammy is in bed, and Caden boasts of sex with Claire. One is making the other one jealous. Sammy, desperate for the senseless farce that they are playing, commits suicide by jumping from a balcony. Caden resents it because that was not was Caden did (he was saved when he tried) and therefore it's not what Sammy was supposed to do when impersonating Caden. Sammy's funeral is the third of the film. Caden moves in with Hazel. Now they are both very old. They set fire around them and go to sleep hugging tenderly. She dies of smoke inhalation. He leaves a message on Hazel's answering machine that the play will take place in one day, the day before she died; and it will be the happiest day of his life. Millicent, the actress playing Ellen, dressed like a cleaning lady, asks Caden to play Caden himself. A very tired and aging Caden agrees. Hazel's funeral is directed by Millicent on stage. A priest gives a depressed sermon that could have come from Caden. Millicent offers him the role that she was playing: he becomes Ellen again. As he enters Adele's apartment to clean it, an old woman gives him an earpiece on behalf of Millicent, and the voice of Millicent in the earpiece tells him what to say and what to do. Caden is shown in terminal conditions in a hospital bed. We hear his feeble heartbeat in the hospital's electrocardiogram device, while memories flash by in random order. While there, he is informed that Adele died of cancer. He hears the noise of rioting people. Now he is in Adele's penthouse apartment. He comes out and the building is suddenly aged beyond recognition: filthy, decrepti, invaded by rats, ... The old lady who gave him the earpiece is there to tell him that nobody lives there anymore and that the elevator doesn't work. He has to walk down the stairs of the 30-story building. In the streets of his fabled set there are ruins everywhere and among the ruins dozens of dead bodies. Almost all of his actors are dead. Something terrible has happened inside his artificial city. He walks around the ruins leaning on his cane while Millicent's voice in the earpiece keeps giving him orders. He only meets one person: a minor actress with a suitcase, who is leaving. They sit on a couch, the voice in the earpiece still instructing him on what to say. As he's talking to the woman, suddenly the voice instructs him: "Die".

Anomalisa (2015), that used human-like puppets as characters and uses only one male voice for all characters except the protagonist and his lower, is a sober meditation on loneliness. By Kaufman's standards, the plot is banal, but the very fact that the film uses puppets and that almost everybody (man or woman) speaks in the same male voice adds a Freud-ian dimension to the story, as if all these puppets were the product of a tormented subconscious and a symbol of the dis-humanity of urban society. Kaufman plays with contradictions: when the protagonist (a puppet) buys a doll for his son, it sounds almost ironic (a puppet buys a puppet for a puppet), but it is a sex toy, which is actually a very human thing to use. When the protagonist looks at himself in the mirror, he correctly sees a puppet, and is excited to hear a female voice, a voice that doesn't sound like a puppet (although it turns out to be yet another puppet). The very lengthy and very detailed sex scene is also a contradiction in terms if one focuses on the fact that these are two puppets.

The film opens with a black screen and a cacophony of conversations. Then an airplane appears in the clouds. When the camera moves inside the airplane, we realize that this is a puppet-animation movie. One of the passengers is Michael, a middle-aged businessman on a one-day business trip. He checks in at a hotel and calls home. He is married and has a child, but he is haunted by the memory of the woman whom he dumped 11 years earlier and who lives in that very city. Eventually he picks up the phone and calls her, Bella. She is shocked to hear his voice. He tells him that he now has a family. She, instead, is still single, and just got out of a bad relationship. Both Bella and his wife speak in the same male voice. Before the meeting Michael turns on the tv set and we see a soap opera played by puppets too. The meeting with Bella is tense: she demands the explanation that he never gave her, but instead he ends up insulting her. On the way back to the hotel Michael walks into a sex shop to buy a toy for his son. He is fascinated by an antique Japanese animatronic doll. Back at the hotel he takes a shower and then looks at himself in the mirror, and for a second he seems to realize that he is just a puppet (the face shakes and distorts like the mechanical object that it is). Just then he hears a female voice (the only female voice we heard so far) and rushes out to find out who that is. He searches the Kafka-esque hallway of his floor until he finds that voice. Her name is Lisa (the only character in the film who has a female voice), and she is delighted to meet him because she and her roommate Emily, came all the way from their town to listen to Michael speak at the conference. He a bestselling author and they are fans of his, two saleswomen inspired by his book. Michael has come to this city to speak about his book. Michael feels comfortable and lively in the company of Lisa, an insecure woman who wears long hair on her face to hide an ugly scar. Michael explicitly asks Lisa to sleep with him in front of her friend. Emily encourages her and leaves her alone. Alone with her, Michael is moved by her. He calls her "Anomalisa", an anomaly perhaps because she speaks in a female voice. She is shy and cold, and confesses she hasn't had sex in a long time, which only seems to make him more excited. They have sex. In the morning the manager of the hotel summons Michael to his office. The office is located in a Kafka-esque basement. The manager confesses that he is in love with Michael. Michael runs away and, terrified, tells Lisa that there is a conspiracy against them, while people are knocking at the door... But then Lisa wakes him up: he just had a nightmare. Michael wants to run away with Lisa, but soon he loses interest in her. Her voice is no longer seductive: it overlaps a male and female voice. His convention talk is a disaster: the audience listens speechless to his delirious rant. Michael flies back home. He gives the sex toy to his little child, who is disappointed because dolls are for girls. His wife surprises him with a welcome party, but he doesn't remember any of the invitees. Far away Lisa is writing him a farewell letter.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is a virtuoso adaptation of Iain Reid's novel "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" (2016).

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )