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Charlie Kaufman Will Break Your Brain in Synecdoche, New York

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Click to viewSynecdoche, New York, the latest film from Charlie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" Kaufman, creates its own brand of magical realism crossed with science fiction. The tale of a theater director with a grotesque disease directing a play that never ends, Synecdoche, New York is a meditation on relationships — and time travel. Kaufman has played with our sense of reality in his movies before, letting us climb into a celebrity's brain with Being John Malkovich for example. But Synecdoche is a place where a house can be casually on fire for thirty years without that seeming out of the ordinary. Petals can fall from tattooed flowers. Fast-forwarding through time soon comes to feel like the norm instead of something strange. This is truly scifi as art — or maybe art as scifi. But is that good? Spoilers ahead. No one working in film today has perfected the art of the trippy, mind-bending script quite like screenwriter Kaufman. As a screenwriter, he proved that it was possible for a writer to truly make a movie his own, and to achieve a level of notoriety for writing rare in Hollywood. But it is almost impossible to review Synecdoche, New York, the latest effort from Kaufman's fevered brain, since the movie doesn't abide by any movie rules I know. This time Kaufman the writer also stepped into the role of director, and the result, while defying every convention you've ever heard of, ultimately runs on in sore need of an editor. But even this could be an intentional effect — because everything is speculative in the strange, half-scifi world of Synecdoche. The story starts out mundanely enough, introducing us to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard (Kaufman loves his quirky names) and his strained family life. Caden is a theater director in a small, upstate New York town, about to launch a new production of Death of a Salesman. He's married to a free-spirited, frustrated artist, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), and they have a precocious young daughter, Olive. It soon becomes clear that Caden is suffering from a life-threatening, mysterious illness, with doctors urging that he see a neurologist. The affliction is manifested as a sort of light-hearted grotesque — emphasis on toilet humor, bulging pustules and uncontrollable body gyrations abound. With his marriage to Adele barely functional and his future uncertain, Caden flirts forlornly with buxom box-office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton, with a lot more hair than she had in Minority Report).


This seems to set the stage for a story about relationships and life crises, all done up in what Kaufman is really best at: the art of making awkward dialogue poignant, scripts saturated in quibbling exchanges made brilliant in their accuracy. But everything goes haywire after Adele elects to take Olive to Berlin — that's when Caden's reality, and the audience's, begins to come undone. Before long, the movie, which had already shown hints of its surrealism under the surface, jumps any recognizable genre. We all start experiencing time dilation and strange skips; the world seems to progress around Caden without his knowledge, and he's our anchor in it. Caden, still sick, but still not dead, is finally spurred to action when he receives a MacArthur genius grant, and decides to mount an epic production that will be "big, and true, and tough." This comes to be in a massive warehouse in the heart of New York City, featuring a cast of thousands, though they have no script yet. That's when things get really weird. There are many elements to Synecdoche that are flawlessly executed: its character portrayals and their dialogue; the imaginative and evocative sets and painstakingly chosen backdrops. There are dingy hospital corridors like something from a horror film, and scaled-down replicas of New York City within more replicas. The clothes always fit the characters just so, and the faces are intimately framed. No one can fault Kaufman's fine attention to detail or how fully he's realized an imagined, alternate world. You can see that it must have all gorgeously made sense in his head. While the film breaks new ground in terms of narrative free-fall and unabashed oddity, it must be argued that everything is taken a bit too far. Kaufman's ideas and themes are unerringly interesting, and the movie wants to be making important, existential statements, but there are too many of them. Running at just over 2 hours, Synecdoche suffers from its length and too many curveballs. We're along for the twisting ride, and mostly game. But after so much relentless weirdness, it's hard not to want your feet back on solid ground.


I wanted to love this movie the way I've loved Kaufman's other creations, especially Eternal Sunshine. But Synecdoche could have been trimmed to a far more palatable shape that would have better showcased its bizarre sensibility and made its biggest themes bolder. It's to Kaufman's credit as a storyteller that we are invested in these strange, often unlovable people at all. "Speculative" may be the best way to describe what's going on, sometimes tipping into even more apparent realms of science fiction. There's certainly many ideas that flirt with it, like Caden trying to train his ailing body with bio-feedback and the threatening zeppelins that patrol the night sky in his future. The normal rules that govern time and space are askew, and people constantly encounter the extraordinary alongside on the regular. While Caden's staged drama progresses, spanning years and acquiring a life of its own, the "real" New York world seems to be experiencing an increasingly violent, encroaching, unexplained war. Kaufman has his characters stroll through shooting and screaming and dying unremarked upon, still caught up in their domestic affairs. Synecdoche sports a cast of exceptional actors, many of whom must age decades in the movie's elastic timeline. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is in almost every scene, and inhabits Caden with a sullen emptiness so exact it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. British actresses Samantha Morton and Emily Watson play doppelgangers of the same part to great effect. Their Hazel has all the trappings of a Kaufmanesque heroine, down to the red hair, colorful clothes and ever-present quirkiness. Hope Davis has a small part as an eccentric therapist, and Dianne Wiest another as an actress turned director. Michelle Williams is so good as an ingenue who catches Caden's eye that I am forced to retract Dawson's Creek jokes forever. But having all the trappings of a brilliant film does not mean that they come together to form one. The various threads and subplots threaten to collapse under their own weight as fiction becomes meta fiction becomes meta fiction becomes meta fiction. By the time Caden is directing a full-scale replica of his own life, shadowed by actors who grow to know their roles better than the originals, the search for a cohesive narrative or the emotional payback we usually expect from a film is off. We are kept in our seats by the desire to see what could possibly happen next, growing cautious as Kaufman shows no qualms about killing off important characters. Death is, in fact, the main theme underlying Synecdoche, always looming larger than the challenges of life. Love is desired and endlessly pursued, but portrayed as ultimately fleeting and tragic. "Everyone," the characters say more than once to each other, "is disappointing." While the newspaper ads crow about this all being hilarious, I have to say that this was one of the most relentlessly depressing movies I've ever seen. You will laugh many times, but it will mostly be awkward. By the time Kaufman calls in a modern deus ex machina, I was ready for this long strange trip through psychological and English and drama theory to end. But Synecdoche will have as many ardent fans as it will befuddled viewers calling bullshit. It's easy to see that Kaufman is trying to make deep investigations into the human psyche: the themes of life, death, war, family and romantic love are writ large and sometimes literally preached at us or given a special monologue. But the movie is impaired by how much of a free reign its writer-director has been given — his hands are in too many pots. Its run time could be nearly halved and still maintain the parts that are the most affective and revelatory. See Synecdoche, New York if you love Charlie Kaufman's uncommon worlds, if you have a fond taste for the bizarre, and the willingness to give up all narrative bearings. See it especially if you enjoy endlessly ruminating on the nature of existence. Just don't see it with your friends who have short attention spans, or anyone not keen on all that's meta and much too self-aware.