Like a belligerent drunk who won’t stop telling you about the assorted conspiracies that keep him from due greatness, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a relentlessly grim, hopelessly incoherent shotgun blast at the canvas of surreal madness. And it won’t shut up. The usual suspects will declare it a work of genius, of course, having the genetic predisposition to believe all of Kaufman’s work, up to and including his bowel movements, are epoch-shifting masterpieces. And just as vehemently, all those who dare challenge the film, especially the alleged dullards and dimwits who gave up trying to understand the fucking thing from the moment a character bought and moved into a house that was literally on fire, will be dismissed as “slaves to convention” or simpleminded buffoons who need three-act narratives to feel whole.
I can almost hear their sneers and whines as I write this. I anticipate these pretentious objections, and meet them where they stand. And yet, I am far from limited in my approach to cinema, and have often embraced difficult works that took weeks of contemplation to reach only a half-hearted understanding. I’ve left confused and dazzled, and need not have closure to affix my stamp of approval. But here, I’ve had it. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays have always been wonders to behold, but without an outside director to give it shape and meaning, we’re left with unchecked self-indulgence. Kaufman holds all the cards this time around, and it’s not to our benefit. While I had a reasonably good time for about a half-hour, I was suddenly overwhelmed not by rage or disgust, but a powerful indifference. I just didn’t care what it all meant. I hadn’t the energy, or the will, or the interest. And so I left early, not with clenched teeth, but perilous fatigue. I was done with the whole insipid enterprise.
As a fervent admirer of Luis Bunuel, I have always had a soft spot for surreptitiously subversive imagery. What appears heavy-handed and simplistic in more formalistic filmmaking can often be revolutionary when not bound by strict realism. When it works, it’s both stunning and insightful, and that much better when accompanied by a playful sense of the absurd. With Synecdoche, that satirical spirit has been replaced by a somber, self-righteous fury bordering on assault. As a consequence, every frame is strained to the breaking point by thematic aggression. Using the life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Kaufman is pumping our veins full of futility and nihilism, all with the intent of revealing the year’s most long-winded turd of banality: “life begins, contains suffering, and ends.” I believe it, of course, but could have obtained the same from a fortune cookie, rather than enduring two hours of frenetic nonsense. All this for that? Few things grate more intensely than obvious turns taking the long way around.
There are so many self-conscious layers upon layers in this film that I felt as if I were witnessing the first piece of meta-fiction contained within its own meta-universe. The meta- never fucking ended. A man begins the great theatrical project of his life by staging his own existence, which reveals how only the dullest among us insist on telling their own stories. If that’s the point, thanks in advance. Wives come and go, children grow, and throughout, the only constant seems to be Caden’s irritating, narcissistic hypochondria. Again, I was somewhat charmed by the first act, and found myself intrigued by this pitiful sad-sack and his hollow world of delusion. As expected, though, once his life entered another dimension, I found myself abandoning the required empathy for the Everyman (it’s fitting that Caden is staging Death of a Salesman) and begging that he drop dead at last. The dialogue is all theoretical, obscure; as if burped from a parody of the Kaufman we only thought we knew. He seemed gracious in the past, almost humane in his respect for the condition we all share. Now, he’s so consumed with his own clever winks that he’s lost his heart. It’s bloodless and artificial to an unparalleled extreme. It’s like asking us to weep for a statistical abstract.
If you want characters, or plot turns, or further examples of subtext, go fuck yourself. The film is obscenely individualized, though a leg-up is assured for anyone bringing a splash of bipolar to the proceedings. Yes, some will speak to an explosion of imagination, and others will find solace and comfort in the actress who plays herself as an actress playing herself, or the one who has twins, yet three names for the pair. It’s cute, and cloying, and unbearable, but there will be adherents. I choose to draw a firm line and say enough is enough. We get it, Charlie, you like puzzles so complex no human can ever really understand them. Your solipsism is your prison, and you’ve set it loose upon the world with the usual lack of discipline or concern for others. You’re a condescending, obnoxious prick at long last, and one can only hope you have the director’s chair chopped up and set aflame for all time. You’re the third-year college student who feels as if he alone has solved the world’s mysteries and can’t wait to tell you all about it. I just don’t give a shit anymore. There is one aspect of the film that left me glowing, however: Kaufman’s equation of the artistic impulse with selfishness, vanity, and pathetic need. How apt.