Charlie Kaufman is a genius when it comes to crafting a story. He works on levels that some artists aren’t even aware exist. Trying to map one of his films is a little like trying to comb Medusa’s hair. Only he would name his film and base the concept on a synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) which is defined as the following: a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made. Read back over it, because I had to mumble “whatthefuck” a few times before it made sense to me. Kaufman is basing his film on this interweaving and complex idea, essentially blending reality and fiction, folding it over and in on itself, until the line isn’t just blurred but indistinguishable. The result is a miasma of shiny and sparkly clusterfuck, a bold genetic experiment so ugly and ill-defined, only a just and cruel creator would allow it to suffocate in its’ own fetid gloominess. The movie is a puzzle, a near impossible amalgam of random pieces and crazy characters, spanning lifetimes, bridging insane gaps, twisting and turning in the middle of the metaphor so you’re not sure whether you were on a roller coaster ride or waiting in line for Portishead tickets. Kaufman’s first attempt to direct his own writing is as would be expected: insanely ambitious and challenging, wildly original, and an incredible creative skullfuck. I just wish it were better.
The premise is such: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pudgy hypochondriac malcontent theatre director known for his bold re-imagining of classic theatrical productions gets an artistic grant to create whatever he desires. Despite the assistance of a therapist (Hope Davis), his artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), whose oeuvre is painting virtually microscopic nudes of people she knows, takes his daughter Olive and dashes off for Germany with her sister/lover/friend/compatriot Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Caden decides to use a massive warehouse to create a play that encompasses all of real life, his life, and his experiences. Along the way he develops relationships with his box-office girl muse Hazel (Samantha Morton) and his ingenue Claire Keen (Michelle Williams). In casting the play he finds a man who has been studying him and who can potentially be him (Tom Noonan), and he finds a woman who he has been pretending to be (Dianne Weist) who eventually becomes him. Understand, I am painting this in broad sloppy strokes in an attempt to figure this out for myself. There is a wealth of rich material within this story, worthy of a Kieslowski trilogy, and methinks that’s the problem. There’s too much here for a single film. I appreciate what Kaufman is doing. The entire piecemeal for the whole, but there’s a whole lotta piecemeal.
It’s easy to forget Kaufman is a first time director. To be fair to him, I don’t think ANYONE could have made a better picture out of his incredible mess. As for his directing acumen, he’s not doing anything special. It’s a Charlie Kaufman movie, so you get what you’ve come to expect: a mopey artist wrapped up in a wonderfully sad love story which involves a multitude of off-beat supporting characters in a surrealist circumstance, one of whom is an effervescent female major love interest. It’s just unfortunate the sheer brilliance of Kaufman’s mind wasn’t focused by someone else’s lens. The problem is that what we are receiving is unfiltered Kaufman, and we aren’t equipped to handle that. Synecdoche is Kaufman’s Ubu Roi, and it’s just too hard to handle.
Caden Cotard is the prototypical depressed artist at the center of all of Kaufman’s work. The biggest issue is he’s too much of a mope. While all of Kaufman’s previous characters had brief moments of whimsy and joy, Cotard is enwrapped in the shit that is his life, and he doesn’t have opportunity to smile or be happy. While Eeyore is my favorite character in all the Hundred Acre Woods, there’s a reason why we rarely get a story that focuses entirely on him. Too much of the somber plodding sadness makes it hard to appreciate the beauty. The other problem is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden. It’s impossible to separate Hoffman from this character. He’s the same blustering depressed bastard he’s been playing forever. It’s not that he’s not good; it’s just that I’ve had my Phil. Conversely, Samantha Morton gets a chance to really sparkle as Hazel. She’s even more bubbly and lovably cynical than Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. Hazel strikes me as the kind of woman Clementine would have grown into if she decided not to stay with Joel after the credits, and ditched the punk rock. She manages to be alluring and shy, seductive without seeming to be aggressive, adorable and smart and basically everything you would want in a girl. If you aren’t head over heels for a Kaufman love interest, there’s a casing of ice over your heart. Morton is brilliant, actually capturing everything I loved about her character in Mister Lonely without being in a terrible movie.
Every actor is outstanding in their roles, even when they are doing some completely awful, awful shit. Catherine Keener’s characters tend to be shrewish, arrogant, artistically pompous bitches, and she plays them extremely well. She is a terrific actress because I seriously wanted to dropkick Adele into an oven in the first 15 minutes of the film. Tom Noonan plays Sammy, an alternate reality doppleganger of Caden, and since he himself is a writer of much accord, he brings chutzpah to the performance and doesn’t disappoint. Noonan brings the same sort of touching sadness to his role that only John C. Reilly manages with Mr. Celophane. Michelle Williams surprises with her role since it has the least punch to it — sort of the disposable lead actress type — and yet she managed to really draw a lot out of it. Hope Davis was fucking phenomenal as the psychiatrist, but watching her eat cornflakes would be captivating. Much of her performance came out of Kaufman’s pen, but she still hit all the notes and expressions dead on. Dianne Weist — well, shit — how does one not like Dianne Weist? That’s a little like hating marshmallows or their sad cousins the marshmellows. Jennifer Jason Leigh doesn’t have much to do except be cat-scratch insane and speak in a strange “Hogan’s Heroes” schnitzel-dripping accent, but it fits right in the film. Kaufman casts well, but who would honestly turn down a role in a Kaufman film? The man got Nicolas Cage to marshmellow out and got Malkovich to play himself seventry hundred times.
Kaufman really stretched beyond his means. The man’s the master of the meta-film, and he actually managed to pull off a meta-meta film that meta-struates all over the fourth wall. Consider this: The movie is about a director who’s somewhat imaginatively talented who crumbles under reality in the face of a project that’s beyond his scope. The play Caden tries to create becomes bigger and bigger until it becomes an Escher reflection of smaller and smaller performance spaces within themselves. The project gets so massive it actually swallows Caden and regurgitates him as something new. Yet, Kaufman himself has created a project that was bigger than even he could handle, and he resorted to using pieces and altering reality and surreality to create this mish-mash of art. Wrap your noggin around that one, nits. That takes artistic balls (or ovaries, if you will).
A critic can stare at a painting and explain how the rich reds represent violence and the black swatches represent birds escaping and freedom. The greens and purples attack the decadence of the ruling class and monetary monarchies. Meanwhile, all I see are a bunch of fucking first grade quality fingerpaintings with a $5000 price tag. If it were any other filmmaker, I would be sharpening my cleaver to make pretentious stew. But Kaufman skewers the ones who slap an e on the end of artist. He attacks them through Adele and the cast of the mega-production, pointing out their ridiculous mannerisms for sport. He’s clever without trying to make you realize how clever he is.
Even with Kaufman poking fun of high art, this is going to end up being one of those Emperor’s New Clothes kind of movies. People will be so afraid of looking boorish and ignorant, they’re going to laud it. Hipsters are going to go crazy, mispronouncing the title and talking about its utter genius. When in reality they’re probably as perplexed as me. I’m not afraid to say I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t enjoy it. It got mired in its own moroseness. I can already feel people digging through old film school notes to make comparisons to Lynch and Renoir and Bunuel. When people don’t understand something, really pretty things happen, or there are moments within a confusing film that are flat out bizarre, these are the names that get drawn out of the hat. Which is ultimately unfair to Kaufman. He creates masterpieces straight from the cerebral cortex unique from those directors.
Strange shit does happen. Hazel purchases and lives, for many years, in a house that is on fire. Throughout the entire movie, she lives in this burning home. It’s probably a metaphor. For what, I can only allow legions of film studies majors to draw parallel and write long treatises on. And there are moments of sheer brilliance. There’s a particular scene, which by explaining would give too much away for those determined to enjoy, that encapsulates the entire film for me. A funeral is occurring, and a priest gives a monologue that basically explains Kaufman’s feelings and the entire movie. Essentially he says, “Nobody wants to watch something about real people’s misery because they don’t want to be reminded of their own misery. But I say fuck them.” Hey, I agree with that statement. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t. Fuck anyone who doesn’t want to watch miserable people because they are miserable. But conversely, I think “Fuck you, Charlie Kaufman. You have every right to present misery because it’s true. But fuck you if I have to watch it because you wrote it.”
Of course, that’s entirely false, and that’s the truth of the movie. It’s pretty much whatever you want to take away from the film that matters. I interpreted it in my own way. That life is short and abrupt and full of misery if you hold a constant lens up to it. You should find love when you can and embrace it. You have no control over your own destiny, even when you’re in control of everything else. It’s about communication and failing at telling people what you feel. It’s about a lot of things. I have no fucking idea what this movie was about, to tell you the truth. I know there will be plenty of people who will adore this movie and consider me an idiot who doesn’t appreciate true art. And to you I say, “Well, good for you. I’m glad someone got something out of that experience. I’m glad you saw the birds and the blood behind the paint.” But I also say, “Fuck you if I didn’t like it.” I encourage people to watch this movie, because it is a difficult and challenging film, and perhaps you will take away a positive and enlightened message, and I will always support Charlie Kaufman’s work. I’m just saying you might not necessarily like what you see.
Brian Prisco is a burger whisperer from the hills and valleys of North Hollywood, by way of the fiery streets of Philadelphia. When not casting his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in an attempt to make sense of this crazy little thing called love, he can be found with his nose in a book in an attempt to make a grown woman cry when he beats her in the Cannonball Read. You can pick a fight with him via email at .com or decipher his crazy ramblings at The Gospel According to Prisco. Hail Discordia!
Synecdoche, New York / Brian Prisco
Film Reviews | October 28, 2008 | Comments ()