Nov 10, 2008
Charlie Kaufman has taken it upon himself to write quirky, original screenplays that bring metaphysics to movies, for which he should be commended. I really liked Adaptation, I loved Being John Malkovich, and I started getting a little restless with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I admire Kaufman's originality but Synecdoche, NY, his first directorial foray, is very disappointing. I went along for the ride for about the first hour, but by the end of the movie I had the nagging feeling that Kaufman was enmeshed in a knot not even he knew how to get out of. The movie got me to thinking about two guys who do metaphysics really well: Kafka and Borges (and Shakespeare* too). They take extremely complex metaphysical concepts and they execute them with brilliant simplicity. They polish and they burnish anything that is extraneous to the central metaphor, so in the end you are left with a hard, beautiful diamond that blows your mind. In my view, the problem with this movie is exactly the opposite: it feels we're stuck with Kaufman in the carbon mine, grasping for diamonds, and never quite finding anything but dark, shapeless soot. It's too complicated.
The movie takes several thoughts (carpe diem, all the world's a stage, the paradox of wanting to portray total truth in art while living a lie) and proceeds to illustrate them with growing confusion and incoherence. For a very lucid take on it, read Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker. Totally on the money.
My good faith was severely tested in this film. For one, I wish an editor had told Kaufman he could safely cut at least a half an hour of it, because it is looong and repetitive. It seems very complex, but as far as I could tell, the final message of the movie is almost fit for a Hallmark card: you only have one life and one chance to make it work.
If the audience loses patience with the hero, because the hero is just too oblivious, no amount of metaphysical fireworks can save the movie. If the amazing Samantha Morton is hitting on you while your terrible shrew of a wife (poor Catherine Keener, always excellent as The Bitch on Wheels) humiliates the shit out of you, you may want to abandon your miserable fog and surrender to life and love.
I find it objectionable when hugely talented actors are wasted on one-dimensional bullshit. It is interesting that someone as resourceful as Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a totally one note, humorless, stunted performance. Why should we care about such a miserable moper? Even antiheroes need charm, or a sense of humor, or malice -- dimension. Luckily, at least we can enjoy the formidable Tom Noonan, who together with Samantha Morton are the only people who seem alive in this film.
In the end, this movie feels extremely self-indulgent and so bent on being brainy that it is strangely disconnected emotionally. Charmless, depressive, suffocating, ugly. I'm not asking for every movie to be Mary Poppins, but too much self-indulgent moping is the kiss of death.
*I thought of the end of The Tempest, when Prospero breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience to release him from his bonds with applause. This is the simplicity I'm thinking about. That little speech sends your mind reeling with the relationship between theater and reality, between illusion and truth for hours.