Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Synecdoche, New York is a two hour long, 2008 film from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and was his first attempt at directing films. It is a wildly overpraised and almost as wildly derided film. The truth is that it is a formulaic and dull film whose predictability, especially after the first 45 minutes, is almost total. Once one hooks into Kaufman’s symbolism and plot quirks (not a difficult task for one over the age of twelve) there is not a single plot development a keen observer cannot pick out the moment a certain trigger event occurs. That said, it is also one of those films that, despite its many and profound screenplay lapses (and has there ever been a more overhyped screenwriter than the dreadfully delimited Kaufman?), features some fine acting performances from some of the best actors in American film today: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, and Dianne Wiest. So, overall, in its best moments, it ascends into unfettered mediocrity. However, the film was one of 2008’s biggest financial flops, which, if cinema lovers are fortunate, will resign Kaufman back to his word processor, and spare us from ever seeing him get another directing credit. As for screenplays …
The primary problem with the film is, naturally, a dreadful screenplay. What is interesting, though, is a point confirmed in the DVD features — when, being interviewed, Kaufman confirms that his best film, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, is the film he thinks his least, because director and star George Clooney changed the film the most from his original screenplay. By contrast, the three prior screen written films of Kaufman’s, in which the directors were the most loyal to his script — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind — all failed because the directors did little to tamp down the worst of Kaufman’s masturbatory excesses. As director of his own script, there is no reasonable way to think Kaufman would not indulge his own worst tendencies — solipsisms, quirks for quirkiness’s sake, doppelgangers galore, the utterances of banalities as profundities, etc. Chief among the pseudo-profundities is the film’s title, which is an alliterative play off of the main characters’ home town of Schenectady, New York, and the fact that Hoffman’s character, Caden Cotard, a theater director, wins a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant then starts directing a real life world within a New York City warehouse that is somehow big enough to contain all of New York City, which has a warehouse big enough to contain its own version of New York City, which has a warehouse … Well, you get the point that a synecdoche is when a thing represents another thing, either in sum or in part, such as saying The Whitehouse, instead of President Obama or The Obama Administration. This cutesy tendency gets worse when one realizes that the main character’s surname was chosen simply because it represents a mental condition wherein the sufferer believes they are dead and dying, and his first name means the spirit of war; and the character is constantly fighting the world. Many critics have patted themselves on the back over the supposed importance of the surname when the character’s first name is the more revelatory. What is funny is that so many reviewers write about the condition as if it was common knowledge, and they knew this right away. I did not, but whenever I see a name that does not sound like something a real person would have, I get suspicious that the writer or filmmaker is trying to be “deep” and “symbolic” — even when really not (I looked up both names, in fact, and, trust me, the characters first name is significantly more connected to the film, for he is at war with the world, more than deluded by death.)
Synecdoche, New York actually starts off well and realistically for the first half hour or so as it follows Cotard’s personal and professional life. He is a hypochondriacal, fat slob who is married to a self-absorbed miniaturist painter, Adele Lack (Keener). They have a young daughter named Olive. Adele also has a best friend/lesbian lover named Maria. After Adele passes on attending Cotard’s opening of a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, their marriage falls apart. He goes through a series of medical tests after his bathroom faucet is shot into his forehead, when the water pressure is too much. This possibly is the moment of Cotard’s death, and the rest of the film becomes more delusional (not dream-like, as advertised), as it has been interpreted as the last moments of Cotard’s life. Adele and Cotard see a female feminist marriage counselor who blames all their problems on him, and shortly thereafter, Adele cons Cotard into allowing her to move to Berlin, Germany alone, with Olive. She never returns, divorces him, and Cotard never sees Olive again; although, in one of the nicer touches of the film, we do see Cotard reading from his daughter’s diary, as it is magically updated with age.
The film then picks up its pace and gets more wantonly surreal (not really in the Magical Realism sense) with many plot turns that logically make no sense (even in dream sense), are dull, and foreshadowed far too readily. Cotard begins an affair with a woman he works with named Hazel (Morton), but she has recently bought a home perpetually on fire (yes, really deep symbolism there). They break up and she married a guy and has kids with him. Cotard then takes up and marries Claire (Michelle Williams) and has a daughter with her, before leaving them to find Olive — who has now grown up into a tattooed lesbian in Germany, with her mother’s lover, Maria, as her own. Cotard then gets his grant and starts hiring people to play various parts in a reproduction of his life. There are easily seen reproductions of earlier scenes in the film, the hiring of doppelgangers to play many of the characters previously seen; such as the in-joke of hiring a character played by Emily Watson — an actress often mistaken for Samantha Morton in the industry — to portray Hazel’s doppelganger. As reality lines blur, Cotard learns of Adele’s growing reputation as a painter, but one is not sure whether this is a real world event or his paranoia. Worse, it hardly matters to the plot and no viewer is really going to care which level of reality the banalities occur in.
Time speeds up, and the doppelgangers continue, such as one called Sammy (Tom Noonan), hired to play Cotard. Sammy then lusts after the real Hazel — whom Cotard has hired after she loses her job at an optometry chain. This causes Cotard to restate his interest in her. They spend one night together and … predictably, Hazel dies. The reason? Smoke inhalation from her eternally burning abode. Go ahead, get it out — roll those eyes back into your forehead! Learning of the real Hazel’s preference for the real Cotard, guess what?, Cotard’s doppelganger, Sammy, commits suicide, in a way the real Cotard was earlier prevented from doing. Then comes the Wiest character, as a cleaning lady who eventually takes over the role of Cotard’s doppelganger, after Sammy’s death, and the lack of interest from Sammy’s doppelganger in taking over the role of Cotard. She ends up narrating Cotard’s life and instructing him on how to live almost every moment of his, then commands him to die, and he does. The end.
The film’s praise largely stems from critics who “like” what they perceive as the film’s meaning and intent — especially its metafictional aspects, largely surmised from a series of interviews Kaufman gave to contextualize the film, as well as the abundant gimmickry taken for depth — good examples are the use of Adele’s miniature paintings (already annoying obvious symbolism vs. her husband’s gargantuan performance piece) being reflected in her name: Adele Lack Cotard being a mondegreen for “a delicate art”, or the significance of 7:45 am being seen on Cotard’s alarm clock to start the film, and also that number appearing on a wall when Cotard finally dies. The most abused critical ideas for the film have been the claims that it is deep because it applies some Jungian ideas of the unconscious behaviors that most people exhibit (such as mistaking one word for another, or one person for another; although this film takes these things way over the top, pounding them into too many moments — one of Kaufman’s biggest flaws is a lack of subtlety). But, as with almost everything in this film, these claims are superficial, at best. But, most importantly, given how dull and predictable Synecdoche, New York is, claims of its intent or depth mean nothing, for, who cares?
Well, apparently many misguided critics, such as Manohla Dargis, of the New York Times. Here are her first and last paragraphs:
To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now. That at least would be an appropriate response to a film about failure, about the struggle to make your mark in a world filled with people who are more gifted, beautiful, glamorous and desirable than the rest of us — we who are crippled by narcissistic inadequacy, yes, of course, but also by real horror, by zits, flab and the cancer that we know (we know!) is eating away at us and leaving us no choice but to lie down and die … Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.
Aside from Dargis’s fondness for clichés and admission of “liking” the film beyond reason, what is there that she imparts that would make others think this is a good film? And, no, I edited out nothing but recap. Yet, how many reviews such as this exist for so many films that are bad? Roger Ebert then tops Dargis — he is so overcome with a boner that he does not even bother to state a thing about the film. Here are some snippets with comments:
I think you have to see Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” twice. I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film and that I had not mastered it. The second time because I needed to. The third time because I will want to. It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely.
While it’s true that the film confused many people, this says more about the audience, since the film is rather easy to discern. Then this:
Wow, is that ever not a “money review.” Why will people hurry along to what they expect to be trash, when they’re afraid of a film they think may be good? The subject of “Synecdoche, New York” is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it’s about you. Whoever you are.
In short, no. The film is not about you or me any more than The Odd Couple’s Felix and Oscar are about everyone. The film stereotypes artists into their worst holes. And it’s not about “life” in the grand sense, in that ineffable way, but about self-absorption, in both its characters and creator. And, it’s not even done that well.
The pseudo-profundity of it all reduces Ebert to an idiotic burble:
In the process, we place the people in our lives into compartments and define how they should behave to our advantage. Because we cannot force them to follow our desires, we deal with projections of them created in our minds. But they will be contrary and have wills of their own. Eventually new projections of us are dealing with new projections of them. Sometimes versions of ourselves disagree. We succumb to temptation — but, oh, father, what else was I gonna do? I feel like hell. I repent. I’ll do it again.
This is utterly laughable, as is this claim:
Charlie Kaufman is one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium. David Mamet is another. That is not the same as a great writer (Faulkner, Pinter, Cocteau) who writes screenplays. Kaufman is writing in the upper reaches with Bergman. Now for the first time he directs.
First, of the three “great” writers mentioned, none were great. Second, Bergman’s works are infinitely deeper and less needlessly complicated (and much more complex) that Kaufman’s nonsense. But, as sure as he got over the top praise, so did Kaufman and his film get ridiculous scorn. The film is simply not that good, but there are moments that are well acted and affecting (some brief “quiet” moments where Hoffman interacts with assorted female characters), and these save it from total failure, much be it the worst film ever made. Far be it, though, for someone like Rex Reed to give a reasoned attack of the film many flaws:
… just when you think it’s safe to go back to the movies, the plunger sucks up something from a clogged drain like the unspeakable, unpronounceable Synecdoche, New York, and you’re forced to take back every prematurely made prophecy about “the worst movie ever made.” Because no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity.
Charlie Kaufman. Oy vay. I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll … but even if Hollywood bought the myth of Charlie Kaufman, the latest Hollywood example of “the emperor’s new clothes,” as a writer … whatever did he do to convince sane people he could be a director, too? His directorial feature debut reminds me of the spiteful, neurotic brat kicked out of school for failing recess who gets even by throwing himself in front of a speeding school bus … What does it mean? I wouldn’t tell if I knew. I have no idea whether the director ever found himself or not, but I had no problem finding the exit.
The DVD, put out by Sony, is not top flight either. The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but appallingly lacks a film commentary track. Given the ponderousness of this film, and the manifest problems so many had with its simplistic plot devices, one would have thought that Kaufman and the film producers would have anted up to get one of the film’s boosters to talk about the film. There’s a trailer and an interview with Kaufman that reveals nothing of depth about the film or the man. There are three featurettes: the 19 minute long In And Around Synecdoche, New York, about the making of the film; the 12 minute long The Story Of Caden Cotard, has Hoffman going on about his character — and it’s a rather pointless piece; and then comes the absolute worst feature on the DVD — even more intellectually numbing than the Kaufman interview. It’s also the longest of the featurettes, at over 35 minutes in length. It is called Infectious Diseases In Cattle: Bloggers’ Round Table. Basically, it gathers some online film critics to blather on about how great the film is. To call this featurette pretentious is an understatement. Aside from blathering on in as much coherence as Roger Ebert, the bloggers show that this is a film for not too deep people to claim depth in. By name, they are Glenn Kenny — an older, balding man who is the de facto emcee; Andrew Grant and Christopher Beaubien — two younger white males who look and speak generically, in PC terms; Walter Chaw — a young Oriental man who seems to be the most pretentious of the group, and makes the most over the top statements; and Karina Longworth — a young white woman with self-consciously artsy granny glasses, who utters vapidities with a disturbing ease. One can Google their names and see just how mediocre (to be generous) their writing and critical skills are, including the tossing about of both cinematic and psychological terms and ideas they clearly know little of, given the contexts they use such terms in. They fall into the easy trap of claiming complexity as the same thing as needlessly complicated, and once their PC quota is reached, they have absolutely nothing to say, save try to top each other in love for the film.
But this film is merely a rehash of the same masturbatory and shallow ideas that Kaufman always uses. Synecdoche, New York creaks with artifice and hamhanded plot machinations, and Kaufman is a one trick pony (high concept/low payoff) and the horse only has one leg. His film is obviously derivative of many other works, be they good: The Mirror (whose deep narrative structure is far more subtle and truly dream-like than this film’s predictably Byzantine melodramas), Stardust Memories (whose ending pulls out the rug of the film with devastating effect vs. this film’s tedious every other minute rug-pulling), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Last Year In Marienbad, Cube; or bad: Mulholland Dr., The Truman Show, The Thirteenth Floor. And the acceleration of the film’s narrative, into a trite meta-mish-mash lacking style, but rife with dullness, has only one redeeming feature: it affords a keen observer the opportunity to see how mediocre films miss excellence. Like his fellow filmic perpetual preteen-minded brethren — Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino — Charlie Kaufman is constitutionally incapable of not making the same film over and again, save for minor details. His puerile tripe is all heart and no brains, sort of like the Scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz … yet another better film this one leaches from. Will someone please say cut already?