Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Synecdoche, New York is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the wildly inventive screenwriter behind films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Over the course of six scripts, Kaufman has developed a trademark style of exploring familiar themes (the creative process, romantic love) while at the same time playing with structure and introducing bizarre plot points like a portal that leads to the head of another person, or a machine that can erase painful memories. So it’s no surprise that Synecdoche, New York is a serpentine head trip of a movie. In fact, there’s no doubt that this is his most ambitious project to date. It’s a behemoth of a film, charting a character through most of his existence and tackling some of the big questions about life and death. What is surprising is how little pathos or liveliness it has, and for a film with such gigantic ambition and scope, how empty it ends up feeling. Kaufman’s gift for exploring the limits of narrative and structure is certainly alive and well, but his script never delivers on enough substance to make it a trip worth going on.

The film ostensibly follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director known for audacious projects like a version of Death of a Salesman performed with all young actors. His life begins to literally fall apart when his artist wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes his daughter to Berlin, and his health problems start multiplying at an alarming rate. Convinced he’s on the verge of death, Cotard unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant,” and resolves to use his new financial freedom to put on a play that will be “big and true and tough,” a project to sum up his life experience. Renting out a gargantuan warehouse and employing thousands of actors, he begins to build (over the course of years) a giant set replica of the outside world, reenacting events from his life and transforming them into a magnum opus of love, loss, and death.

Kaufman’s script is chock full of references to famous authors and theorists like Baudrillard (Cotard considers, not surprisingly, calling his play “Simulacrum”), Rilke, and Kafka, so it's little wonder that the mood here is one of pervasive dread and morbidity. This is echoed by Kaufman’s shooting style, which is all dark and seedy urban landscapes and dreary apartment buildings (in a nod to Luis Bunuel’s surreal style, one character’s house is perpetually on fire), a decay that seems to mirror Cotard’s forever-ailing body. But Kaufman seems to have little of an eye for interesting composition, and it becomes obvious that whatever spark his previous films had was courtesy of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Similarly, his pacing is unbelievably awkward and mistimed. Every time the story begins to gain any momentum, another twist occurs, or a new level of narrative is introduced (I’m still trying to figure out the relevance of the sequences in Berlin), a tactic that does little for the meta style he’s trying to cultivate, and only succeeds in repeatedly taking the viewer out of the story.

As Cotard, Hoffman exudes a certain kind of exhausted melancholy in every scene (one could argue that he does this in almost every film he’s in, actually), and he does it well, but his character ultimately becomes a caricature of all the worst parts of the creative personality to the point that we stop caring about his latest loss or health problem. Meanwhile the periphery characters, among them Michelle Williams and Emily Watson as two of Cotard’s love interests, seem less like real people and more like stage props for Hoffman’s character to manipulate and arrange in his project. This may or may not be intentional, but there’s no doubt that it alienates the audience to the point that the movie becomes relentlessly tiresome.

This is too bad, because on a scene by scene basis, there is actually a lot to like here. The introduction of Tom Noonan as an actor playing Cotard in the play makes for some of the film’s best moments, and the details of how the play is put together inside the warehouse are fascinating, with Hoffman walking through a maze of different sets and giving his legions of actors direction. Structurally, these parts of the film (probably Kaufman’s career, in truth) owe a debt to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose famous short story “On Exactitude In Science” describes an attempt to make a map with the scale of a mile to a mile. Similarly, Cotard becomes so busy recreating his actual life in his labyrinthine back lot that he forgets to live it, to the point that the two become hopelessly intertwined. This idea is interesting enough, but Kaufman fails to set his focus on any one subject enough to fully explore it, and as his ideas pile up one another, the whole construct eventually collapses under the weight of its own cleverness.

There’s no doubt Synecdoche, New York is full of enough legitimately good ideas for ten feature films, it’s just that Kaufman fails to meld them into anything truly compelling. There’s no argument that he’s an interesting man and an inventive writer, but it seems like beneath all the wordplay, self-reflexivity, and narratology, he’s just not a very effective or natural storyteller. His movies, which tackle some of the big questions of life and what it means to be human, are always paradoxically drab and lifeless, like an academic whose ideas are beautiful but whose own personality is relentlessly bland. Taken as individual snippets, many of the scenes in Synedoche, New York work beautifully. For example, the few sequences featuring the always excellent Hope Davis as Cotard’s therapist hit just the right note of absurdity, and provide the film with some of its few moments of levity, and a late scene that finds an actor (playing a priest) expounding on the nature of despair is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen. But none of this ever gels into anything that feels complete or whole, and while I’m willing to concede that even this conceit might fit into the fractured framework of Kaufman’s script (his style is so meta that it gets hard to legitimately criticize anything), it never succeeds in making Synecdoche, New York anything more than an oddly alluring mess of a movie.

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