Monday, November 10, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

I was going to start this post by quoting E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein, and how experimentalism can be admirable even when doomed to failure, but this movie doesn't deserve that level of discussion. Writer (and here, first-time director) Charlie Kaufman is that tightrope walker, the artist known for his Stunning Imagination. This means that critics and audiences attend his movies with some expectation of being confronted with dazzling complexity (or at least superficial complexity, which might be a more accurate term for what Kaufman traffics in), and it also means that many will find that complexity, damn it. But even though a smattering of the people in the packed Brooklyn theater where I saw the movie clapped at the end, and several critics have praised it, I'm here to tell you it's a dud. And worse, it's devoid of imagination.

The first hour or so is average Kaufman, churning out just enough off-kilter humor and odd-universe details to keep you alert, but not approaching the unique plots or visuals of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half, as Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets lost in the massive, interminable play he's producing, the movie becomes an effective soporific. The conceit -- for those who don't know -- is that Cotard's play is based on his own life and experiences, and reality and fiction become increasingly entangled as the decades (yes, decades) pass. The two big problems: 1) A mind-bending premise like this -- alone -- is not that imaginative. It could be generated by anyone familiar with Borges, to name one mind-bending trailblazer, and Borges died 22 years ago. 2) That leaves it up to execution, and Kaufman uses the premise mostly to write -- in a way that alternates between flat and juvenile -- about the impossibility of love and the fear of mortality. Fine themes, but not if you approach them like you're the first to think of them.

The performances are uniformly good (especially Samantha Morton as one of Cotard's muses), but to make another short list: 1) Hoffman needs to seek out some fresh roles, stat. To paraphrase the person I saw it with, haven't we seen enough of him sitting forlornly on the edge of a bed in his boxer shorts? 2) I really like Catherine Keener, but I suspect her range is between 0 and 0.01. She could have been digitally dropped into this movie from others.

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Anonymous Jason Zinoman said...

You are completely right, and why no other critic has the guts to say so says something about the current state of Kaufman worship. For my money, "Happy Go Lucky" is a far more complex film despite appearances to the contrary. I just saw it a second time and came away with an impression very different than my first. There's no way I would see Synecdoche again. I do however think PSH plays different kinds of roles ("Capote" comes to mind) especially onstage. From what i recall, he kept his pants on in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on. This film was tedious and depressing.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Months late, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to strongly disagree with you here. I'll spare you the reasons as you no doubt can imagine why someone WOULD like this film, but I found this to be impenetrable on a plot-level basis, but unavoidably inviting on a visceral, emotional level. I can honestly say this movie has had a profound effect on me. At the very least, even if you don't like it, it's a movie to be appreciated. I'm not a fan of Wes Anderson in general...find him terribly overrated and his films void of actual substance...but I'm sure glad he's making movies. He fails in ways that I admire. I would hope you might at least feel the same way about Kaufman!

12:51 AM  

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