Does Charlie Kaufman have anything to offer the planet except post-modern rope tricks and fashionable misery?
In looking at his newest mind-bender Synecdoche, New York, has there ever been a more imaginative, provocative, surrealistic way to ultimately say, “life sucks and then you die.” How can such a sharp, observant, vibrant mind find so much to say about the creative process and so little to say about life? So much in the intellectual playpen of his head and so little orbiting about the eyes and ears? Vexed with the directors who have brought his scripts to the screen in the past, Kaufman commits the ultimate act of filmmaking solipsism. He located the best director he could think of–– himself.
Freed from the bane of collaboration, Kaufman turns in a fascinating, irritating trip through the screenwriter’s mind. Yet missing are Spike Jonze’s accessible weirdness, Michel Gondry’s lovable insanity, George Clooney’s great eye, and anybody to tell Kaufman that he already has made his point.
Kaufman is in pure, brilliant form but also in a rambling mess. To describe the shapes and sizes of Synecdoche is impossible. Playwright Kaden (an unstoppable Phillip Seymour Hoffman) thinks he has cancer. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. He does have an unhappy artist wife (a sleepwalking Catherine Keener), who runs off to Germany with her best friend and their daughter. He also has a potential mistress in his community theater’s secretary, if he could bring himself to do it. That’s where recognizable normality stops.
Things get stranger and stranger. Kaden receives an artistic grant, which he uses to move his actors into a giant warehouse and create his magnum opus. But the opus keeps getting more and more magnum. They remain there for twenty years, as the stages multiply like rabbits and Kaden tries to re-create scenes from his past. For inspiration and catharsis, he piles through his relationships with other women (Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams stand out of a strong hen party). As his life continues, his play expands endlessly.
Soon, there’s an actor playing him on and off set, revealing his innermost feelings to others. And if you think that’s out there, that’s hardly the half of it. But don’t worry that much. What something is is one thing. What something means is something else. The film is highly symbolic. Kaufman’s surrealistic memories of past loves recall 8 1/2. Most interestingly, Kaufman posits the writing process as the creative outlet for assessing and distorting a life – a mixture of past and fantasy, conjecture and myth, put forth as much for the author as the audience.
My greatest past criticism of Kaufman has been that he never completes his thoughts, that he uses them as a platform for metafictional horseplay rather than the full expression of ideas. That isn’t a problem for Synecdoche. It completes his ideas. Then it completes them again. And again. But I must ask you, do you like James Joyce? Do you know those long, dizzying passages in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dedicated to incredibly intricate discussions of artistic ideals? Because the most worthwhile things here are Kaufman’s thoughts on the relationship among memory, drama, and life, about the way we create stories from our past to wrestle and understand it. It’s interesting as long as it stays in his head.
Yet Synecdoche wanders into the impenetrable mental jigsaw land that makes Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake so hated by undergraduates. While Kaufman does drop his pet masturbation scene for this film, his mental masturbation remains intact.