No contest 

An easy pick between Hoffman, Cruise

A person’s religious beliefs are, or should be, a private matter. Few actors, however, have gone so public with theirs as Tom Cruise, who famously conquered his private demons through the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. So emancipated is he in Hollywood, with his millions and his cast-iron faith in Scientology, that Cruise can control just about any project he wants. He’s said to be well-liked in the movie community and admired for his generosity, but the story behind his attachment to Valkyrie bespeaks a touchy vanity, too: The actor took an interest in Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the character he portrays, after noticing a physical resemblance between himself and a picture of  the late colonel, executed in 1944 for his part in a failed plot on Hitler’s life.

The problem with Cruise is that his public life has overshadowed his credibility as an actor. Projecting such complete control as an individual, Cruise is simply the wrong guy for  roles that require lack of control, doubt, hesitation, anything but unshakeable resolve and robotic efficiency.

As it happens, Cruise gives a competent but unexceptional performance as von Stauffenberg, but the talent around him outclasses him: Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard. Thanks to these actors, there’s a kind of benign doughnut effect around Cruise: You simply stop noticing him after awhile. But a movie with a doormat in the lead can only be so good. Valkyrie, too, is ultimately competent but unexceptional.

One drawback with a thriller predicated on a known historical outcome is that, well, you more or less know how things are going to turn out. Director Bryan Singer wisely circumvents this by centering the suspense with the characters, not the plot, and he does a good job of introducing and differentiating the lesser-known Germans in this classic what-if scenario. Of course, there’s also the difficulty of orchestrating accents in a movie with a largely English-speaking cast playing Germans. As Americans, I believe we prefer our movie Nazis to at least speak with British accents, which makes it doubly strange that the clashing voice in Valkyrie belongs not to Cruise but to Christian Berkel, the one German actor in the movie with a substantial speaking role, inexplicably speaking with a lousy American accent. What was he thinking? Why did Singer let him do it? No Colonel Klink impressions, at least. That’s a victory of some kind.

Really, though, can you think of the last time you saw Cruise act? We consider him an actor, but only because he’s a famous guy we’ve been seeing on the movie screen for a quarter-century. He’s hardly alone in this respect, but the more Cruise picks his roles for the sense of personal power they project, the more I appreciate actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does powerless and pushed-around better than almost anyone I can think of. Which personality type can more of us relate to? Hoffman is great in just about everything, bringing a kind of fumbling, inarticulate universality to his most memorable roles. And when he loses his temper, there’s a cable-thick vein fixing to bust through his forehead.

In Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a playwright and director struggling with a youthful community theater production of Death of a Salesman and a wife (Catherine Keener) who has outgrown their marriage. In couple’s therapy, she confesses she wishes Caden had died when their daughter was born so she could start over without guilt. Meanwhile, Caden flirts chastely with his most devoted actor, Claire (Michelle Williams) and box-office temptress Hazel (Samantha Morton). When he receives a so-called “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, he spends the next 40 years building a replica of New York in a cavernous warehouse and directing a play that never ends.

Synecdoche marks the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote the screenplay, and it should surprise no one that on one level the movie is merely another hand-drawn map of his creative process. In this respect, Hoffman is the perfect Kaufman stand-in: His Cotard is engrossed in his work, hung up on details, has a hard time signing off on things. The only difference between the two may be that Kaufman is clearly smitten with his own creativity; Caden Cotard regards his with a sense of trudging duty.

But Synecdoche is more ambitious and universal in its scope than, say, Adaptation. Cotard casts actors to play important people in his life (a strange man who has been following the director for years gets the part of him); they push through wayward interpretations, fall in love with other actors, and so on. Often the actors stick around long after the people they’re playing have moved on. Other characters, and actors, may or may not exist. Meanwhile, Cotard keeps hiring actors and writing in more parts and building stuff until the city and the set cannot be distinguished from one another, nor real life from acting.

Clearly this is a movie reaching for huge things. I highly recommend it. Terrible title, though. Just Synecdoche might have been okay.  It’s too bad Kaufman couldn’t pass up the wordplay.

Valkyrie is currently screening at the Village 6. Synecdoche, New York is currently screening at the Wilma Theatre.
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