In which Jesse Hassenger joins the L’s Synecdoche, New York lovefest.
harlie Kaufman’s newest film, and his first as a director, opens this weekend, and the L at large seems pretty excited. One of the most interesting aspects of Synecdoche, New York is the way that it so thoroughly displays Kaufman’s signatures (meta-narrative, dark humor, fumbling relationships, deadpan weirdness, melancholy, the conviction that being married to Catherine Keener would be kind of miserable) without employing his usual killer hooks, like an eight-minute pop song without a chorus. His previous work surely didn’t stop with the idea of entering a portal into John Malkovich’s brain or a movie about the writing of the screenplay for that movie or a service that can erase romantic memories on demand, but those killer ideas are easy invitations to Kaufman’s wavelength.
Synecdoche only sounds like it has that kind of entrance when you describe what’s actually a later development in the movie (go away if you want to stay completely spoiler-free): aging, morose playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) builds a life-size replica of Manhattan inside of a Manhattan warehouse, in which he stages a massive, epic play based on his life (including actors playing actors playing the playwright, and so on). It’s kind of like the end of The Muppet Movie, and comparably upsetting.
You might think: and so that’s when it starts to get weird.
But we’re pretty much in a David Lynch-style dream-logic landscape from the get-go (Cotard sees himself in his daughter’s favorite cartoon show), with the important distinction that Kaufman’s waking dreams are rooted in his protagonist’s subjectivity and psyche and, further, those things are actually interesting. I’ve never been particularly moved by any of Lynch’s forays into nonsense, while Caden Cotard’s struggle with mortality and purpose is as immediate as his story is bizarre. His journey through a personal and/or worldwide fog is oddly funny, and the movie sharply depicts the struggle between specificity and universalism — an artist’s desire to be original and truthful and personal, and to somehow represent a lot of other people while doing so.
Kaufman’s directing style is less developed than music-video geniuses Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze; he mostly apes the unaffected, faithful Jonze interpretations of his earlier work: fantastical or surreal sights filtered through an intentionally dreary, melancholy lens. Given that, it’s difficult to separate Kaufman’s directorial choices from his writerly decisions — though he comes up with some beautiful, arresting images, like a forever-burning house and crumbling versions of both real and fake Manhattan.
The most negative reactions to the film (chiefly from Owen Gleiberman and Armond White) are already bemoaning a near-universal hipster-intellectual acclaim it hasn’t, per the Tomatometer, actually received. After a string of surefire, nigh-impossible-to-dislike (at least for hipster intellectual jerks like, you know, most of the people you know) movies, Kaufman has done his best to confound us. Synecdoche, New York is messier and less perfect than Kaufman’s best work, but its messiness is fascinating, and often hilarious. If Kaufman occasionally weighs his work down with symbolism, it’s kept afloat by its undisguised unease and openness to life’s mysteries and miseries. This is no less genuine than the faux-verite of, say, Rachel Getting Married, and it’s a lot more hilarious.
(My real disappointment with the movie is that morose, downtrodden Kaufman seems ideally suited to write a movie about Upstate New York, but quickly absconds for Manhattan. The film’s title is a pun on Schenectady, an Albany-area city where the movie begins, a city non-famously and probably inaccurately characterized by my high-school economics teacher as having “two industries: arson and prostitution.”)
Though its neurotic, downtrodden artist of a protagonist shares unmistakable similarities with the movie version of Kaufman himself in Adaptation, as well as the men of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Kaufman picture Synecdoche most resembles may be the underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It’s an odd kinship, given that Kaufman reportedly disliked George Clooney’s directorial take on the material; maybe Kaufman wanted to correct perceived mistakes. Certainly the probably-fake autobiography of Chuck Barris speaks to Kaufman’s unease about man’s place in the world. At times, Synecdoche, New York resembles Kaufman’s fake autobiography of the rest of the world.