Film Reviews

Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman

Rating - 10/10

Are you familiar with the phrase or state of analysis paralysis?  This is where the instinct to be brutally honest with one's self through deep, merciful analysis distracts one from the actual living of life and interaction with the people who come across it.  If you know exactly what this is you need to see this film, as it is the ultimate depiction and extrapolation upon this mindstate.  If you do not relate to this description, this movie will frustrate you most likely, but may still move you.  This movie will also frustrate the former such as myself.  I am still totally confused, with an urge to watch the flicker another three or four times.

Charlie Kaufman is one of the few, if not the only, active screenwriter seen as an auteur on the same level as film directors.  He is both a pioneer of and the best at the current genre known as meta-fuckery*, in which reality and context bending conceits are used to illustrate nagging issues at the heart of the artist's struggle with life.  In Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his use of a sci-fi memory-erasing gimmick yielded both one of the finest examinations of the ambivilance of love and relationships and one of the best films of this decade.

Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, Gondry's Human Nature, and George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (still his best directorial effort, even surpassing his great follow-up Good Night and Good Luck) were all wonderful movies that betrayed Kaufman's background in sketch and sitcom comedy in their jokes and premise, but brought another layer of pathos and intellectual questioning to the proceedings.  Jonze's Adaptation, a movie whose protagonist and primary conflct was Kaufman's struggle as a writer, seemed to be his stellar magnum opus of self-analytical examination of himself and the role of the artist.

Adaptation could and maybe should have been the last word on Charlie Kaufman's angst and doubt.  Kaufman has little left to prove (beyond an honest hit or Oscar win), as he is now a rich, well-regarded author of films, supported by a handful of the most vibrant directorial minds of this era.  Fortunately for fans, and perhaps unfortunately for Kaufman, he is a true artist with an eternal flame of self-doubt and compulsion to share the questions he asks himself with the world.

Perhaps one of Kaufman's directorial cronies/visionaries could have helmed Synecdoche, but it is appropriate that this marks his first effort directing his own material.  Phillip Seymore Hoffman makes the most affecting, painful Kaufman surrogate yet, following career-best performances from such heavy hitters as John Cusack, Sam Rockwell, Nic Cage and Jim Carrey.  The direction is pitch perfect for the material.  It lacks the whimsy of Clooney, Gondry, or Jonze, but hits the right visual and audio register for all of its sequences.

The quick and entirely accurate descrition of the story has a small town, death obsessed theater director winning a MacArthur genius grant and mounting the most honest, self-analytical, ever-further-from completion stage production in a huge warehouse he uses to represent in miniature his own life including the part after he starts this consuming project including actors playing all the players in his own life and then layers of players and sets depicting this process as his family drifts further away, achieving fame, success and artistic self-actualization in Europe.

As confusing as that single sentence paragraph may have been, the movie is even more confusing as it obscures the timeframe and the protagonist's perception of it, the layers of surrogates' relation to each other and their lives outside of the ongoing production, how the production proceeds over the years as principals and their inspirations actually live and die, and a house that stays burning from before it is purchased to its abandonment in a narrative that may take place objectively over several years or subjectively within a single day.

Breaking these paragraphs into smaller sentences might help to clarify matters, but not with this one.  This is how confusing most of the picture is, a touch less at the beginning, and a touch more at the end.  Like an emotional, intuitive dream/puzzle weaver like David Lynch, I am emotionally overwhelmed and drawn to delve deeper.  Like Lynch, solving the puzzle is not the point, as even Kaufman probably does not know the absolute solution.  In terms of intellectual and intuitive rightness, however, this is a transcendently honest and affecting work.

*I'm sure this phrase has been coined already, but if not, please credit me with it.