Dir: Charlie Kaufman
Write a plot summary? Sure, if you fancy seeing how my criticism reads when my mind has imploded.
I’ve waited a long time for Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. I first heard about it when it played Cannes in 2008, failed to get a ticket for it at the London Film Festival later that year, and have been anticipating its release since. I like Kaufman’s work, the fact that he always seems to have trouble finding a way to end his films aside I think he’s one of the most interesting screenwriters around. Add to that the fact that this film has a cast that seems to be made up of all my favourite people in cinema, including the great Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you can hopefully see why I’ve been anticipating it. Perhaps that anticipation is part of the reason that Synecdoche, New York is a disappointment on such a catastrophic scale, then again, it might just be as bad as I think it is.
It actually starts out promisingly. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is as brilliant as ever in a difficult role as Caden Cotard, a hypochondriac theatre director with a deeply dysfunctional family life with his artist wife (Catherine Keener) and their 4-year-old daughter. Throughout the film’s first half hour Kaufman rather wryly observes their life and their foibles, leading to several very funny conversations. Then Caden’s wife leaves him, he receives a ‘genius grant’ so he can produce a theatre piece and Synecdoche, New York begins to lurch further and further off the rails with every passing frame.
The main problem is this: I don’t care about any of these people. Kaufman clearly wants us to feel sorry for Caden in his lonely life, but he’s the cause of it, and it’s hard to care about a man who is so weak, so beaten down, when he seems to have everything he could want. He’s utterly unsympathetic, and that meant that I never engaged with him, never cared whether his play ever got produced or if he ended up with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the assistant who clearly loves him or Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel in the play. This lack of investment extends to every character, because they all seem essentially selfish and self involved. This means that even the endless parade of deaths in the movie make no impact, because who cares if there’s one less character you didn’t like anyway?
It’s absolutely not the fault of the actors. The film is brilliantly cast (Watson and Morton as the two Hazels is a particular masterstroke) and acted with conviction and reality with every performer, none more so than Hoffman. It’s just that the people they’ve been tasked to create and the situations they are enacting lack any ring of truth, any sense that they exist for any reason other than Charlie Kaufman’s amusement. Kaufman, of course, deals in unbelievable situations, but even at their most outlandish Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich feel real within their own worlds, this film never does.
It’s a shame that Synecdoche lurches into pretentiousness, because its cast deserve so much better. Among a line up crowded with the greatest female talent available right now many impress. Watson is excellent, particularly as she observes and mimics Morton. Morton, for her part, is the most human person, and perhaps the only likeable person, in the movie – she has a wonderful moment early in the film when Hazel buys a house that is cheap because it’s on fire, saying “I’m afraid I might die in the fire” in much the same tone that one might use to express worry about dry rot or cracked pipes. Dianne Weist is also customarily excellent, and Catherine Keener, though she’s done this sort of part before, plays Hoffman’s inattentive and uncaring wife with relish. The real standout, though, is Hope Davis, hilarious and drop dead sexy as Hoffman’s psychiatrist – if only she had more than 10 minutes screen time. The sole disappointment is Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose ill-defined character has little to do, and only four minutes or so in which to do it.
As the film plods ever nearer the two hour mark, and reality and fantasy begin to blend ever more, the film becomes unspeakably pretentious, vanishing, by the end, so far up itself that it becomes a klein bottle. It’s a distancing and boring film. I’m sure that some critics will tell you how deep and important and meaningful it is. I’m not one of them. I’d almost recommend Synecdoche, New York because of the sheer amount of acting talent on display, but with such numbingly dull material to work with even these greats can’t craft a film worth seeing.