Since our two movie reviewers have some words on Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, we’ve put them both in one location…below. Matt’s is first followed by Brian’s
Synecdoche, New York Movie Review by Matt Goldberg
There is simply no screenwriter as brave as Charlie Kaufman working in mainstream American cinema right now. At some point, Kaufman learned all the rules and then decided he had no use for them. If "Being John Malkovich" is your most conventional film to date, then you, sir, are an expert at blowing minds.
And yet there's never a hint of pretension in Kaufman's films (well, maybe "Human Nature", but we'll just ignore that flick and should continue to do so regardless of me making my point) because they're not pretending at anything. Kaufman knows exactly the points he wants to make and while the road to that point may be twisty and weird and even a bit of a mindfuck, there are clearly themes and character arcs at work. It's almost like a magic-eye where if you step back and blur your eyes, you'll see a 3-D picture of love intertwined with loneliness.
"Synecdoche, New York" is his biggest challenge to date. It's a film I can't even begin to rate because a week after seeing it, I'm still not exactly sure what I saw. I can describe the "What" of the narrative: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director suffering from inexplicable ailments. As his marriage and health deteriorate, Caden's mortality and legacy become his primary concern. With the help of a MacArthur genius grant, Caden decides to build an entire theatre to examine his life and the suffering therein. Of course, as Caden begins to replicate his life, the production then needs to create a new production and so forth. Basically, it looks like Caden navel-gazed so hard that he fell into his own belly.
I know there are things about the film I like. I like the performances, especially Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden's constant love interest and a woman whose house is constantly on fire (one of the film's many symbols which I cannot decipher). I like Jon Brion's score, particularly the song "Little Person", which is just so sad and beautiful that I almost tear-up every time I hear it. And despite the distance the film's bizarre and surreal atmosphere creates, it manages to still bridge emotional gaps, especially when exploring Caden's estranged relationship with his daughter. "Synecdoche" can also be a very funny film, especially during the first act as it strolls into the absurd.
I know there are things I don't like about this film. I don't like that it reaches a point where I'm spending so much time struggling to understand what's happening and the significance of turns in the narrative that I can't simply soak the film in and participate on an emotional level. Furthermore, I don't think Kaufman was up to the task of directing such a complex story and that he needed a visually imaginative director to step in and provide imagery that would compliment the story and provide a kind of aesthetic anchor to keep the viewer attached to the characters and the situation.
And ultimately it's attachment that makes "Synecdoche" such a tough film. In one scene, characters act as human beings and in another, their actions are more symbolic or subversive or surreal. The universe keeps shifting and when trying to tell the story of a man attempting to recreate, control, and examine his own universe, I'm guessing that's the intent. One viewing will help you get this strange world under your feet. But the question is: do you really want to return for a second viewing where you're going to see two hours of Philip Seymour Hoffman's sadness and suffering? Do you find the intellectual and emotional gifts rewarding enough to study this film? However, if you're looking for a nice Saturday night out at the movies, you'll probably want to avoid this flick. With a film that goes so far outside the bounds of conventional cinema, I hope my ambivalence and confusion is understandable. But if you really need a rating, I've provided one below:
Rating ---- Three-and-a-half "Huh?"s and a "Whaaaaa?"
Synecdoche, New York Movie Review by Brian Orndorf
With "Synecdoche, New York," Charlie Kaufman's imaginative idiosyncrasies calcify into tiresome clichés. A sprawling elegy to death and the art of navel-gazing, Kaufman's directorial debut is a piece of performance art that drips with intangible meaning, but lacks any sort of drive that compels the viewer to invest in this punishing two hours of furious artistic masturbation. While teeming with unique visuals that challenge the audience, it has finally come to a point where if you've seen one Kaufman film, you've seen them all.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a troubled man, confronted with the end of his marriage (the wife is played by Catherine Keener) and estrangement from his young daughter, while facing a creative roadblock reworking famous plays. The stress manifests itself through Caden's failing health; the artist finds himself consumed with his body, tuning out the rest of the world. When a sizable financial grant falls into Caden's lap, he takes up the challenge to create a massive theatrical production, assuming control of a cavernous warehouse to erect a replica of New York City, spending decades trying to perfect this mirror image of his life while hoping to elude the harsh reality of love and death.
"Synecdoche" is a purposefully indulgent piece of work that will likely induce nirvana in some viewers while boring the bejesus out of others. To the film's credit, it's a singular vision of self, monitoring Kaufman as he takes a stroll through his own dysfunction and fears, using the costume of fiction to put forth a morbid motion picture seemingly created only to tickle the filmmaker. It's not a bad thing for Kaufman to photograph his neuroses, after all, he's been banging the same drum for a decade now, using strained passes at alt-film whimsy ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature") to speak about the extravagance of unsettled emotions. Why should "Synecdoche" be any different? Now that he has pried directorial control away from quirky Frenchmen and skate video gurus, it's time for Kaufman to assume center stage, and if you're searching for an impossible portion of psychological sludge, "Synecdoche" is a required art-house appointment.
I was less inclined to embrace the torment, finding Caden's trail to be an endlessly circular journey fattened beyond recognition with idiosyncrasy neither enchanting nor profound. It just never sealed up as a quaking experience to me; the picture is lost in a fog of self-awareness and painfully underlined fancy that provided more excuses to stare blankly at the screen instead of mourning along with Caden as he scrutinizes his own demise, loneliness, and all sorts of adventures of introspection it takes a literal lifetime for him to confront.
While Kaufman is off playing around with bodily functions (fecal matter is practically a supporting player here), inflating breast sizes, and generally tinkering with the passage of time, "Synecdoche" wanders too far away from a claustrophobic portrait of existential angst. The wider the story gets, as Caden bends reality with his city-reconstruction play and loses his perspective while drowning in 360 degree performance, the less impactful the themes become, the final swipe of the film reduced to a mere post-it note on a banner of blaring neurosis. The cast is quite game to follow the director anywhere, with Kaufman assembling a 1927 Yankees line-up of art-house all stars (Keener, Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest, and Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden's lifelong object of desire) to portray the eccentricities. Their efforts are appealing, just lost in the overall spectrum of quirk.
Calling "Synecdoche, New York" pretentious is futile, as Kaufman would most likely agree with that label. I lean more toward laborious. It's a film working its way towards interpretational paradise, but the lengthy surreal asides are an endurance trial that present little in the way of appreciation. Kaufman has every right to keep making the same movie over and over, but to see him run through the routine of somber enlightenment (abyssal illumination?) is a chore. With this drifting, humdrum, stalled engine of a motion picture out of his system, Kaufman can finally alter his game and move towards more consequential routes of personal exploration.
--- C minus