Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: Synechdoche, New York

A Sony Pictures Classics release 2008

Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Of Synechdoche, New York, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes: "To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now."

I wish I shared her enthusiasm.

Synechdoche is ambitious, for sure, but that doesn't make it good. Mr. Kaufman misses the mark so spectacularly it's surprising he hasn't committed suicide yet.

I don't say that because the film isn't well made -- it is, particularly for a debut director, technically impressive. But the ideology behind it is so sickening and sad that it prohibits me from appreciating it. Synechdoche isn't a reflection or exploration of life -- it's an active stance against it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an unsuccessful theater director named Caden Cotard. Being a Kaufman film, we know from the very first frame that this character is doomed. Doomed from the start. As he struggles with his creative bankruptcy, Caden opts to analyze every instance of his life through recreation and reenactment, thanks to the help of a sizable grant and a cast of dedicated actors. This would be fine, if it weren't a tactic deployed by depressed teenagers everywhere, and Caden were a likable character. He's not.

Caden is depressed, you see. Understandable. His life sucks and he is doomed. Perhaps if there were some light at the end of the tunnel he might cheer up a bit (and so would the audience). But there isn't any -- only death. And so it goes, over and over, with a dab of surrealism here and there to keep things interesting (and confusing. What the hell was the burning house metaphor for? It appears in the film at least three times and seems to be a differently symbol each time, but for what? Nothing as far as I can tell).

Ultimately the film is about life, death, and trying to make your mark. Caden fails, miserably, to impact the people and world around him because he is selfish, self-absorbed, and scared. He's an asshole. That's fine, but I don't want to watch that character get nowhere for 3 hours of my life. I could use that time for something else.

That's my biggest beef with this film -- ideologically it's so bleak and asinine that I don't understand why anyone would want to watch it to begin with. The character appears to be trying to make something of himself, but his tactics are so childish and futile it prevents him from moving forward. He is stagnant from the first frame onward, and in turn the film is stagnant.

There is some humor in there -- especially in the beginning -- but it wears thin as the film moves towards its final act. By the last third, I was just bored. I didn't care about Caden, I didn't care about his play, and I didn't care about the movie.

Interestingly enough, a lot of this years big movies have dealt with the concept of life and death -- Benjamin Button and The Wrestler, being two standouts. While The Wrestler was equally depressing, I found myself rooting for the main character. I couldn't do that with Synechdoche -- there is simply no one or nowhere to latch on to.

Several film critics have pointed out that this is a film that demands multiple viewings, and it will be analyzed and scrutinized by film students for years to come. I only have one question for those people: Why?

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