Saturday, May 30, 2009
Review - Synecdoche, New York
For about an hour, I've been sitting in front of a blank computer screen wondering how on earth I'm going to review Synecdoche, New York. In that respect, perhaps I can empathise slightly with the film's central character, Caden Cotard, who is also trying to make sense of something that's too large and complex to bring to order. In my case, it's just a movie, but for him it's life itself. After laying the foundations for some of the past decade's most memorable films, with his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman has elected to make his directorial debut with arguably his most ambitious work to date. Synecdoche, New York is a meditation on life, ageing, and death, into which the writer seems to have crammed every idea and wild notion he could muster. Without a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry taking the reins, this is essentially Kaufman in his purest, most undiluted form, and maybe that's its biggest flaw.
Attempting to summarise Synecdoche, New York's plot is perhaps a foolish endeavour, but I'll try. Caden Cotard (a downbeat Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director living in Schenectady, New York, the film's title being one of many puns Kaufman includes in his script. Like most of this screenwriter's leading men, Caden is one of life's losers; he is obsessed with the idea that he is dying, shuffling morosely from doctor to doctor in search of diagnoses, and it's little wonder his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has decided to leave him, taking their four year-old daughter and departing for Germany. When Caden is awarded a MacArthur genius grant, he sees it as his chance for redemption; an opportunity to finally create the theatrical masterpiece that will validate his existence. He hires a huge, abandoned warehouse, in which he begins rehearsing a production based on his own life, building a life-sized replica of New York within this cavernous space, and casting actors and actresses as himself and the people around him. He is dedicated to finding some kind of essential truth in this vast concept, and he fastidiously distributes notes to his cast, as he attempts to control and refine every single aspect of the play, and as the project consumes his life, Kaufman refuses to distinguish between Caden's genuine and imagined reality. He eventually starts casting actors to play the actors he originally hired, and the film continues to pile layer upon layer, until we – like Caden – completely lose track of where we are and how this all began. "When are we going to get an audience in here?" an extra asks at one point, "It's been 17 years."
Charlie Kaufman has an extraordinarily fertile, imaginative mind, and Synecdoche, New York is liberally decorated with odd, surreal details that only he could have conjured. Samantha Morton's Hazel lives in a house that is constantly on fire, a detail nobody seems perturbed by; Hope Davis' omnipresent therapist wears too-tight shoes that cause blisters and sores to appear on her feet; Tom Noonan stalks Caden for years, perfecting his mannerisms before auditioning for the starring role in his play; Caden reads the diary his daughter left behind aged 4, and somehow the entries continue into her adulthood. Unfortunately, Kaufman's onslaught of ideas never coheres, and the film settles into a disjointed rhythm, with too many underdeveloped notions acting as distractions from the main theme. There's a heartbreaking study of a life unfulfilled buried somewhere within this film's labyrinthine structure, but despite being enhanced by individual moments of great beauty, I never felt the same gut-level emotional pull that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation or Being John Malkovich exerted.
So could Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry have spun gold from Kaufman's opus? I'm sure their presence would have been helpful, at least. It is well known that Jonze put Being John Malkovich through a long and rigorous editing process before turned Kaufman's screenplay into the film we know and love today, and that kind of editorial discipline is sorely lacking here. As a director, Kaufman is unfocused and indulgent, and although his staging of many sequences does impress, the lugubrious pace he imposes on the film sucks any real sense of life out of it. Hoffman's performance doesn't help matters either. He plays Cotard in a single, unwavering register of self-regarding despair, and the more we get to know him over the course of the film, the harder it gets to care about him. This lack of a central character leaves the film with an emotional void at its heart that Kaufman can't fill, not even with the superb collection of actresses he has surrounded Hoffman with. Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Dianne Wiest all bring their usual quality to bear on their characterisations, but their efforts are ultimately in vain.
And yet, as disappointed as I was with this film, I can't quite dismiss it. Charlie Kaufman is one of the most interesting and creative artists working in American cinema right now, and even if his directorial debut is overlong, dense and bloated, there's enough going on in its weird world to keep it nagging away in the back of my mind. A second viewing didn't greatly improve the film for me, but I did find myself considering different aspects of it, and thinking about it in a fresh light, so perhaps in time I will find a way to burrow into the meaning at the core of the picture. I don't know if this review has got anywhere near a proper evaluation of Synecdoche, New York, and in truth, I'm not sure I'm capable of it. I know people who have taken this film to their hearts, declaring it as a masterpiece, and I know people who have walked out of screenings in anger and frustration. This is a film you're going to need to see for yourself, probably more than once, and only after that will you know if it means everything to you or nothing. Charlie Kaufman has put his heart, mind and soul on screen for us; it's messy, complicated and fascinating. Make of it what you will.