Charlie Kaufman, the genius mind behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other existential films with shorter titles, has given people that don’t live in major cities another reason to wish they lived in New York City. It’s there – and in the rest of limited-release-land – that audiences will be able to see his latest work, his directorial debut, Synecdoche, NY.
To keep the description short, it’s about a playwright creating a play to describe his life and relationship with women. To keep the description long, it’s about a manic artist played brilliantly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who gets the funding to embark on a journey of self and communal discovery by creating a play that echoes his life, his life during the play, and his life during the play during the play. It makes a character study of everyone, even its audience and achieves handily most of the goals it sets up for itself.
It seems natural that the bar would be high for Charlie Kaufman on his first directing job. His writing is incredible and has been handled with passion by others ever since he was being John Malkovich. So for Kaufman to take the reigns of his own writing, people who are prone to making expectations either thought he’d fall short as a director or that his work would be mind-bogglingly ingenious. I’m not one prone to expectations or hyperbole, so I can say with confidence that it’s closer to genius than falling short, but still not quite there.
Certainly, the film’s success is a direct result of the writing, but Kaufman also has one of the best casts of the year to work with. Hoffman is in top form. Catherine Keener is fantastic, and Michelle Williams is probably the best she’s ever been. Likewise for Samantha Morton and Hope Davis. Diane Wiest, as usual, is perfect. They all work together with an odd atmosphere of veteran wisdom and the curiosity of a first-year theater student encountering his or her first improv class. The dialog all seems fresh in their hands despite its heft, and they seem to drop deep questions and observations so softly that they don’t even fully hit until a few moments later.
The characters themselves come in and out of the story so much, its as if Kaufman caught Bertol Brecht when he was feeling nostalgic and conspired together to create the character arcs. It works beautifully – each character being the star and a minor role, trading places, trading lives, displaying the ultimate point that every day there are 6 billion stories being told on earth each with its own main character.
And there’s depth around every corner. The best part is, some of it will be yours instead of Kaufman’s. In a way, his film does a lot of heavy philosophical lifting but leaves you to pick up the rest; it leaves you to define what the rest is and how much you’ll lift on your own.
You should know going in that you won’t be able to digest and pass this film through your system like the latest laxative being shown at your multiplex. You’re going to have to invest in the film, so if you’re not cool with that, skip it and buy a ticket to High School Musical 3. But if you are ready to invest, Synecdoche will return incredible profits back to you. Just make sure you take someone with you so you’ll have someone to discuss things with afterward.
That life-questioning depth is only matched by Kaufman’s eye for shot-framing. Amidst the weird scenarios of his unhappy home life, Kaufman creates closed-in spaces for Hoffman to get trapped in. He moves from that tiny apartment to the grand scope of the stage – the world really – that Hoffman’s character Caden creates for his play to exist within – an enormous city within a city somewhere in the heart of the warehouse district.
If the film fails anywhere, it’s that Kaufman skews a bit too artistic, sometimes in favor over story. Hazel’s house constantly being on fire is a great metaphor, but it feels out of place in what seems like a relatively normal world inhabited and challenged by an unusual man. It also doesn’t serve much more than the poetry of the piece while the rest of his artistic choices make statements while pushing the characters and the plot.
It also doesn’t follow the average story structure, so it actually feels a little bit longer than its run time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering all the beauty that’s up on the screen, but for some it will be a factor that removes them from an otherwise engaging film.
Overall, this movie is something to envy of our friends in the major markets, to hope gets a wider release, and to impatiently wait for until the DVD comes out. It’s a gorgeous, moving work and nothing less than what we’d expect from a modern genius. Find it. See it.
The Upside: Another love letter to existence from one of, if not the best, screenwriter of the day. Brilliant acting all around. Gorgeous set design and music.
The Downside: It’s not for everyone and can drift a little too much into the obscure from time to time.
On the Side: No, I won’t define ‘synecdoche’ for you. Go look it up. You’ll learn better that way.