There’s a certain kind of movie that pulls you in with a tractor beam and rivets your corneas so that you relish every detail and miss it once it’s over with the sort of ache you reserve for a recently-departed romance. Synecdoche, New York, the new screenplay and directing debut from Charlie Kaufman, the genius who gave us Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is not that kind of movie.
There’s a certain kind of movie that pulls you in with a tractor beam and rivets your corneas so that you relish every detail and miss it once it’s over with the sort of ache you reserve for a recently-departed romance. Synecdoche, New York, the new screenplay and directing debut from Charlie Kaufman, the genius who gave us Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is not that kind of movie. Oh, it makes you ache, all right, but this ache begins behind your eyes about halfway through the film and runs down to the base of your head. Your corneas are still riveted, but because you’re watching so intently for signs that it might end soon that you worry you have missed an important plot link, which would explain why the film has suddenly flown right over your head, dangling nary a rope for you to grab onto. Ordinarily, I’d say a film that soars so spectacularly, especially one of this caliber that dives unafraid into human perception, is tops and should win every Oscar, but it’s that whole headachey, waiting-for-the-end-credits desperation that this film instills that is its ultimate downfall. It’s one thing to write a genius screenplay, but it’s another to make it beautiful to your audience.
Can’t believe I just wrote that obnoxious paragraph? Just wait! There’s more! So much more. You simply cannot write about this film in normal terms, that’s the annoying thing about it. Luckily, though, it’s so complex that I’ve discovered you can basically say anything you want about it, as long as it’s convoluted.
“It’s life imitating art imitating life imitating art again..imitating life imitating art. Doubled. And then imitating life again. Then life twice more, then art three times, then a quick life/art, and then just death. And then art imitating death.”
“The fear/longing of death actually orders and conducts the events of self-perception in an internal fantasy that examines one’s own life in and then examines the examination and then gives up/achieves the realization of sweet, sweet death/end credits.”
“Synecdoche, New York is like spinning around on the playground in order to make yourself dizzy, falling down on the ground and feeling the earth move in circles that lessen in intensity as time goes on and you reorient yourself to your surroundings. Only also you are on acid a little.”
I seriously just made up these sentences on the fly, yet they make sense in this context.* Do you see what we are dealing with here?!
It’s hard to review this movie using the same five star scale that I use for every film because part of me knows that this movie is leaps and bounds better than the other three star movies. I just can’t get over the nagging suspicion that Synecdoche, New York could have been a complete package. Furthermore, I think that it really thought it was. Why? Because one of the major premises of the film is that small-town theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is as talented and offputting as ever) is the newest incarnation of the everyman. He’s me, he’s you, he’s Willy Loman, he’s your next door neighbor, he’s Barack Obama,** he’s Mary Lou Retton, he’s your first grade teacher, he’s your ex-wife’s cleaning lady, you get the drift.
But if that’s the case, why do I feel so alienated? Caden’s life…well, it’s hard to explain. Time and reality shift and buckle. Remember the part in Adaptation when things start to shift into the high gear of moviemaking, and we start to realize that the film within the film is the film itself? Well, take how confusing that sentence I just wrote is and multiply it by a million. This is what you’re in for. It’s an endless cycle of repetition, like looking into a mirror while standing in front of another mirror, only it lacks any of that sort of symmetry and order. Not that that’s inexcusable — we’re talking about the human psyche here. It can’t be too simplified. There’s something to be said for complications just for complications’ sake — to prove that the psyche isn’t able to be pinned down and defined, but at least it should be able to be recognizable as such. Oh, I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore.
There has certainly never been a film like Synecdoche, New York. It covers new ground, which is something my heart fervently wants to applaud…but my head. My head!! How can I put my support behind something that I so desperately wanted to be over as soon as possible? Is there an excuse for that kind of filmmaking? So many people would say yes that I can’t help but urge you to see this film. In my heart of hearts, I know it earns your nine dollars and most of the awards its about to win. However, my desire to watch another movie — any movie — at the end of the film would normally indicate a definite one star review. For that reason, I do not rate. And I can’t talk about it anymore. I’m going to watch Pirates of the Caribbean now and revel in the simplicity of Disney. I don’t even care.
*Rejected idea for this review: writing a review about myself writing a review about myself writing a review. What, shut up, I can be the Everyman too.
**In case you’re not sure who he is, I’ve included a link for your convenience.