Prestige Week at the DVD Store

This week marked the debuts of Milk, Rachel Getting Married, and Synecdoche, New York at our friendly neighborhood DVD stores. I saw Milk in the theater, and loved it. As for the remaining two prestige projects, I figured I'd really like Synecdoche and be really annoyed by Rachel, which smacked of an "edgy" vehicle for the decidedly un-edgy Anne Hathaway. I watched them both this week at home, and man, were my prejudicial instincts off this time around.

Let's start with the good: Rachel Getting Married. In spite of the fact that Hathaway's recovering drug addict character is just as big a trainwreck as advertised, she doesn't overpower the film, and illustrates a depth and inner goodness to her character that a lesser actress might have rendered mute.

While Hathaway garnered an Oscar nom for her performance, the real find in this picture is Rosemarie De Witt as Rachel, the one who's actually getting married. In a standard family dynamic, it would be the bride who's the trainwreck and the other sister left to keep her in wraps. But here, De Witt's character is the only one capable of keeping her sister from running roughshod over the wedding experience, while sweating the details of the celebration just as any other bride would. That she's able to walk this tightrope while leaving the viewer to come away from the challenging film in an uplifted mood speaks to De Witt's remarkably-textured turn. Hathaway is good in her role, but De Witt's the one who should have been up for a gold statuette.

Meanwhile, Synecdoche, New York marks the directing debut of the brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). Synecdoche, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a playwright in a flagging marriage, was championed by elite critics of publications like the New York Times for its "ambition." For its first hour, the film builds tension in a bizarre and alluring manner, as Hoffman's character is stricken with an unusual illness and seems to occupy space in both real and fictitious realms. There's never a frame wasted, and the viewer is hungry for some sort of clever resolution.

Sadly, that never happens -- and not just in an "oh, they didn't quite get there" sort of way. Rather, the second half of Synecdoche might well be the worst hour of filmmaking ever committed to celluloid. It's so awful and unintelligibly self-indulgent as to be placed in the ring with Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly's equally "ambitious" Southland Tales, considered one of the worst films of 2007. Kaufman's point -- if one can even be discerned -- is that every obscure person in the obscure world has an obscure story that deserves to be told. The pile of high-minded shit that his film ends up in provides ample evidence to the contrary.

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