400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Awards season has begun, and I doubt you'll be seeing much mention of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (115 screens), except possibly in the "production design" categories. And the truth is that the film only partially works; it's quasi-insane in a good way, but it hits upon ideas that were better explored in Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). It does have a great cast, however, and it's a shame that they'll all be overlooked. Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, will shake it off and probably win some honors for Doubt. He's one of the greatest actors of our time, and we'll probably be watching high-quality Philip Seymour Hoffman movies for decades to come. No, I'd rather focus on the many great women that drift in and out of the film. Thank goodness for them.
Catherine Keener has been nominated for two Oscars (for Being John Malkovich and Capote) and for my money she'd be nominated for her devastatingly funny performance in Hamlet 2. She's clearly smart and amazingly versatile; she can play a bored housewife, but she can also turn men's heads with very little effort. Her gift is that she can hook you and then play with you by switching gears so fast you can't see them. She's lately segued into a series of wonderful character roles and will probably be around for some time.
Michelle Williams has one Oscar nomination (for Brokeback Mountain) and has some tiny, indie buzz going this year for her one-woman show in the terrific Wendy and Lucy (1 screen). She has perhaps the most emotionally fertile role in Synecdoche, and she may be the most lovable of the women characters. I interviewed her once, and found her charming, relaxed and slightly, mysteriously sad -- unlike any other actress I've ever met. I hate to use the phrase "old soul," but I think it describes her perfectly.
Samantha Morton was a favorite of mine a few years back, but Hollywood quickly snatched her up and just as quickly ran out of ideas for how to use her. Lately, she's been needlessly, frustratingly squandered as secondary wives and girlfriends. She's the soul of Synecdoche, but seems to be holding back from some of her earlier, more ferocious performances. She was nominated twice, for playing mute in Sweet and Lowdown -- we all know how the Academy loves disabilities -- and for the bland In America. But the Academy ignored her two bravest performances, as the confused, terrified pre-cog in Minority Report and as the title role in Morvern Callar, desperately looking for something beautiful in a rotting world.
Then there's Jennifer Jason Leigh, who for some reason, despite three decades of consistent, exemplary performances in intelligent films, has yet to earn a single Oscar nomination. In my book, she just keeps getting better and better. Lately, she's become more playfully sensual, and more feline. She looks just perfect curled up on the couch with a coy look on her face. She's barely in Synecdoche, but she's one of its most primary physical forces.I've run out of room already, and I haven't even come as far as Hope Davis, who can be delightfully kooky, fastidious or obnoxious, the sweet Emily Watson, forever known for her astonishing debut in Breaking the Waves, and double Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest, who for all intents and purposes should be a Grand Dame of cinema, but isn't. It's a testament to Kaufman that he loved these women enough to cast them all.