Synecdoche, New York: Brain Food For a Starving Artform
I watched the first ten minutes, thinking, “I’m not sure I’m going to like this.” Half an hour later, it was, “Do I like this?” Half an hour later still, it was, “I really like this.” After the film ended, it was, “I want to see it again now.” Right now, a week later, I sit and contemplate everything I did (and did not) absorb about this rich, brilliantly crafted film, one of the best of the year. Charlie Kaufman has made his personal 8 1/2, and there hasn’t been a directed debut by a screenwriter this strong since Mamet’s House of Games. In a way, because this film has such frightfully large ambitions, I’m far more impressed with Kaufman’s achievement. It’s what happens on a movie screen when an imagination is free and runs wild in every direction it can.
If you’ve seen a Kaufman-written film (such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind– three of the most original films of the last decade), you already can guess the beginnings of the plot. There’s a self-loathing man, usually an artist, attempting to achieve something great in a futile and dreary existence. When Synecdoche begins, it is the dreariest Kaufman film to date. Not in the sense that you want to slit your wrists, but in the sense that you wonder if it’s possible that anyone suffers the way this character does. He’s a theater director this time around, and while his critical life is terrific, his personal life is a shambles. That’s all I want to say about the plot, since a large portion of the fun is trying to imagine what Kaufman will throw at you next.
The fun part about the film (some would say the frustrating part) is trying to piece together the puzzle. It can’t be done—the film is throwing so many images and twists at you that fifty viewings couldn’t give you total comprehension—but getting everything to “click” isn’t the point of a film like this. This isn’t a realistic portrait of a man where you can see the brushstroke of every detail. It’s more like an impressionist painting, where when you look closely it’s hard to make out the whole picture, but when you step back and let the dots blur together, you see the way the dots and colors blend into one another, giving you a vivid picture, perhaps something closer to real life than a conventional realistic portrait could provide. At least that’s the case with this film.
If you’re left thinking after the film, trying to decipher some of the imagery, and you’re frustrated, that’s because most films are content not giving you anything to think about. Kaufman has assembled one of the best ensembles in recent years, thrown enough idea for ten films into one screenplay, and left some bewitching imagery for your mind to chew on for weeks. Philip Seymour Hoffman continues his streak of outstanding performances—his consistency is so remarkable that I can’t recall the last time I didn’t think he was great in a film. Patch Adams? He was even funny in the terrible Along Came Polly. Not to mention Samantha Morton, another consistently great performer. Kaufman gave himself ringers in the acting department to go with his risky screenplay. He needn’t have worried, though—his direction is surehanded. He’s provided a feast for any moviegoer looking for brain food. However, don’t let my descriptions let you be discouraged from it, believing that surrealistic thinkpieces aren’t your thing—it’s also one of the funniest movies and most affecting dramas of the year.