Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sih-NECK-doh-key, New York

More than one person has described "Synecdoche, New York" to me as "Charlie Kaufman's brain exploding all over the screen." This vomitous, orgasmic characterization is appropriate, considering this is the directorial debut of a writer who has famously complained about his scripts being too reeled in at the hands of other directors. Mr. Kaufman certainly uses this chance to let loose, and the result is a movie that is equal parts intellectual chore and emotional outpour. The ratio is practically one to one, actually. The first half of "Synecdoche" is a series of absurist jokes strung together by an emotional fluency that is really satisfying, and the second half is a sporatically funny, increasingly tedious formal excercise that treads too-familiar Kaufman themes. There's plenty to talk about, though. That's good. Right?


The story is a permutation of the past films Kaufman has written: We have a guy, usually an artist or writer (in this case the indestructible emotional anchor Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is trying his best to understand himself and produce a lasting work of meaningful emotional truth. He deals with a melange of women and various health problems that seem to be manifesting themselves out of his own internal problems. As the film goes on, we go deeper and deeper into our protagonist's brain as he digs and digs to try to uncover exactly what it is that is causing him such emotional turmoil. "Synecdoche" tackles this same archetype with a greater scope; instead of going further into our protagonist's psyche, as in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "Being John Malkovich," we move further outward as Caden, the artist, tries to stage a play that encompasses every aspect of daily life. Think about that for a moment. A film about a guy making a play about every bit of life.

Thanks to concise punchlines and some wonderful acting, the first half of the film works beautifully. Every scene is a ridiculous joke about Caden's failing marriage or his bizarre ailments (scabs, pustules, blood in the urine), and Mr. Hoffman plays each bit so sincerely that the dream-like logic of the film is totally acceptable. Of course Caden would see himself in every cartoon and movie poster. Of course his neurosis would reflect his sickness. The hilarity climaxes when Caden's wife, played by Catherine Keener, snubs him on the phone, and Caden jerks into an enormous seizure. He flails around on the bed, fumbles the phone, manages to dial 9-1-1, and has nothing to say but "I'M SICK!! I'M SICK!!" His helplessness is both funny and horribly sad, and from then on the film drifts into formality.

Caden recieves an ambigulously large grant to stage the play of his liking, and he chooses to build a replica of New York in a humungous warehouse. So, if you build a replica of New York in a warehouse, you have to build the warehouse, too. And if you build the warehouse, too, you have to build the warehouse inside, too. Etcetera. A synecdoche is a part that represents a whole, and Mr. Kaufman sure does like to explore that idea. Once Caden starts building his sets, the second half of the film begins to alternate between the "real" New York, the "miniature" New York, and the "miniature minuature" New York. This means that the audience sees an emotionally charged scene, then an emotionally distanced recreation of this scene, and on and on down the line. This is boring. For a movie that tries to be everything, "Synecdoche" harps on one note quite a bit.

As Mr. Kaufman's characters build their gigantic New York, everyone becomes less sincere, less like real people, more of a failure. Caden and the actor he has hired to play himself (who is played by real-life actor Tom Noonan and hired by real-life director Charlie Kaufman) spend most of the second half of the film speaking in big, sweeping themes: "We're out to make something real!" becomes a mantra. This is appropriate to the story, of course, and thematically it is dead on, but it just comes off as shallow. Just because the movie is about characters who become increasingly hollow does not mean the film has to mirror this move formally. It is interesting, but empty. Unfortunately, without a director to balance his writing, Mr. Kaufman's film just wanders away from itself. "Synecdoche" is packed with metaphors, structural turns, and leaves you with plenty to think about, but formal exploration with only half the content can only get you so far.

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