Film review: Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York

Title: Synecdoche, New York
Released: 2008
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

Charlie Kaufman is arguably the most exciting, original, vital, and intelligent American screen writer around. His screenplays for films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2003) are some of the most innovative of the last decade. They were surreal and post-modern in nature. But they also were not so abstract as to lose their beautiful treatment in portraying and documenting aspects of the human condition. Themes like self-worth, relationships, conscience & conscientiousness, responsibility, art, modern life and (of course) love, crop up. And are dealt with in a thought-provoking and utterly original way. This was bolstered through the aesthetic of the most interesting directors of our day. Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). So, through unique and beautiful visual cinematic devices, Kaufman’s scripts came to life and played out in front of us like pieces of wonderful art. Then we come to Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut.
He both wrote and directed this time, and placed one of the best actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the lead. The ensemble cast also includes very strong players such as Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams and Tom Noonan. So this film had the potential to be a modern masterpiece. It should have been perfection. Alas, it’s not. It’s as though Kaufman was trying so hard to re-create his individuality that he drowned in his own convoluted self-indulgence. Synecdoche, New York certainly has fantastic moments, thematically, artistically and visually. And is beyond what most auteurs would dare to achieve. But it is overloaded with po-mo, self-referential abstraction and surrealist stylization. So much so, that all the subtlety is lost; as though Kaufman wanted to out-do himself, this being his big auteurial challenge. To write AND direct, at last. So he wanted to take all the things we adored about the aforementioned titles and crank the volume up to number eleven. What we’re left with is a messy, lengthy (over 2 hours), study in the bizarre. Timelines jump around, but this feels too contrived. The humour is so dry and dead-pan that it’s not really funny. The parts that are meant as moving portrayals of humanity are just a bit sad and at odds with the narrative. And the life lesson, moral of the tale, is consumed by hyperbole and cleverness for its own sake. It’s not without its odd amazing moment, here and there. And of course Hoffman is brilliant. But we expect this from Kaufman and Hoffman, and a few minutes of brilliance does not a classic movie make. Kaufman should have kept it simple and not parodied himself. Ironic, since art imitating life is the central theme. I’m sure this was not lost on Kaufman as his struggle with his art imbues the entire (no doubt autobiographical) story. Speaking personally, maybe I expected too much. I’m such a huge fan. But when you set the bar I just want you to reach it.

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