Sunday, January 18, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman)

There's a scene, early on in Synecdoche, where Philip Seymour Hoffman stares into the toilet at green, malformed shit, trying to establish exactly what it means. That might describe my reaction to this movie. Staring at green, malformed shit is interesting, certainly, but at some point you just need to flush it down.

As the world's biggest fan of Adaptation., you could say I was looking forward to Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut as much as anyone. Well here it is and be careful what you wish for. Ladies and gentlemen, Charlie Kaufman has finally managed to lodge himself up his own asshole. That might sound like a recommendation. Perhaps it is. On Rotten Tomatoes, the "fresh" reviews almost sound negative, and the "rotten" reviews almost sound positive. Some snippets:
Nearly a month after watching Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut... I'm still figuring out whether it was a brilliant idea poorly executed or a poor idea brilliantly executed.

One of those movies that's full of ideas and sparks lively discussions after the lights come up. Too bad that actually sitting through the thing feels like torture.

He goes for Fellini's 8 1/2 but comes up 8 short.

A great big incomprehensible phantasmagoria. I'm all for 'personal' movies, but this one's private.

Watching the film is also wearying, like assembling a puzzle from a box into which a sadist continually pours new pieces.

You can't help but think this must be what it looks like when your life flashes before your eyes.
That should give you some idea. So what do I think? Well, by the basic standards of "Is this film interesting/creative/imaginative/compelling/etc.," I would have to say that Synecdoche is a success. But by the standards of "Did this film improve my life in a significant way," I would have to say not particularly. I hesitate to bash a movie for being too ambitious. Maybe Synecdoche made me realize how much of a key piece Spike Jonze must have been in Kaufman's earlier successes. Jonze's music-video-skater-punk-prankster vibe really complimented and counterbalanced Kaufman's neurotic anti-social intellectualism quite well I thought. Without Jonzes' touch, or even Michel Gondry's, it appears that Kaufman's most impenetrating tendencies have gone unchecked. And I mean unchecked. It's sort of like Morrissey without Marr. It's like Damon Albarn without Graham Coxon. Synecdoche is more Think Tank than Modern Life Is Rubbish, more Vauxhall & I than Louder Than Bombs. Sure, Vauxhall & I is worth a listen, but is it better than Louder Than Bombs? I don't need to wait for your reply.

A while back Jason wrote in the comments section, "From what I hear, this movie is about a guy building a SCALE MODEL of New York City. I'm sold." Yeah I was sold too. Except Kaufman completely mutes the impact of that gag. See, the whole movie exists in a Lynchian dreamscape, so it's one of those "I don't have to make anything plausible because it's all surreal and dreamy" sort of deals. Been there done that buddy. I also didn't detect much of a strong visual flare. And the acting is a bit on the catatonic side. A movie can be ambitious and intelligent and still have energy, right? I don't think Kaufman got the memo. I'm reminded of a scene from the Simpsons where Homer flips the channel and catches Garrison Keillor on TV. After a couple of seconds, he throws a bottle of beer at the screen and says, "Stupid TV. Be more funny!" That's me at the screening of Synecdoche.

Roger Ebert has blown a gasket over Synecdoche. He's not "wrong," of course, but I don't know if he's bothered to put the film into any kind perspective (hell, when you watch so many movies that aren't even trying, as Ebert does, you probably become flabbergasted by a movie that actually is, even if you can't quite pinpoint why it's good). Some excerpts: "This is a film with the richness of great fiction." Yeah, but all great movies should have the richness of great fiction. "The subject of Synecdoche, New York is nothing less than human life and how it works." Yeah, but the subject of any great movie is nothing less than human life and how it works. "It is obvious that he [Kaufman] has only one subject, the mind, and only one plot, how the mind negotiates with reality, fantasy, hallucination, desire and dreams." Yeah, that's only one subject and only one plot, all right. Ebert's reaching for some grand, overarching Kaufman thesis, but I don't see bupkus. And he's acting like he's never seen an ambitious, intelligent movie before. Hate to break it to you Roger, but these topics have been covered in cinema prior to Charlie Kaufman. Well so what, you say? People criticized Adaptation. on the same grounds: "That whole meta-fiction thing has been done so many times already." Yeah, but the difference is that Adaptation. was funny. At least I thought it was funny. Synecdoche is just a dense modernist headache. But hey, if you love dense modernist headaches, then by all means, check it out.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: **1/2


jason said...

Ha, I love how I capitalized SCALE MODEL, as if that were impressive... Anybody could build a scale model of New York.

I meant to say LIFESIZE MODEL!

Little Earl said...

Hey, I didn't even notice. Just goes to show you it's the CAPITAL LETTERS that really matter, not the phrase itself.