I'm a big fan of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, mostly Adaptation than the former. Charlie Kauffman is a great writer, full of great ideas and challenges to the viewer. He's bold and daring, something a lot of screenwriters are not. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York opened to mixed reviews, but I still wanted to see for myself. I finally sat through it all.
Caden is a successful director of plays who unexpectedly wins a MacArthur Fellowship, a genius grant, and he intends to create a play of brutal uncompromising truth so he buys a warehouse and mounts a mini-Schenectady, and creates a play of everything, including himself. He hires actors to play people and then actors to play the actors playing people and so on and so forth.
This is a big movie in that there are a lot of things going on. It's a movie about the nature of creating art, the inability to remove the creator from the creation, the self-sacrifice required for real truthful art, and ultimately, the inability of art to represent real truth. On top of all of this is the slow, inexorable crawl of man towards inevitable death.
But is it any good?
It's okay. Kauffman has somehow managed to top the self-indulgence of Adaptation with a screenplay even more about the screenwriter, and the self-recursion goes even deeper, on a grander scale. This is self-indulgent art by definition.
But it lacks humanity. A lot of terrible things happen to Caden, like his wife abandons him and robs him of his little girl's childhood, and his little girl grows up to be a Berlin prostitute/dancer, and his physical decay is steady and never-ending. But I never cared for his plight. Not once. Caden was so self-centered, so self-involved, and irritating that anything that happens to him is just something that happens. There was no pathos.
It doesn't help that Synecdoche, New York indulges in surreal antics, like a perpetually burning house that one character lives in. Or the wilting flower petal that falls off a tattoo of a flower. The symbolism is there, right in front, nothing subtle about it. This detracts from the human aspect. Surreal sequences always sap the emotion from the situation because the audience cannot relate or connect to the experience. They've never had it, so why would they understand, on an emotional instinctual level?
Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Caden is good, but nothing absolutely spectacular. I could have seen Paul Giamatti or any other schlub in this role. In fact, a much better movie about the problem separating the creator from the creation is American Splendor. In that movie, Harvey Pekor becomes his comic, and vice versa, and every experience he has must be transmuted into comics. It's a fascinating portrait of a real person who could only deal with cancer by writing a comic about it.
While I may seem overly critical of Synecdoche, New York, it's only because I'm a fan. Kauffman seems to be going over the same ground compulsively, and coming up with nothing new. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation are stunning, amazing screenplays that mine new angles and profound emotion from tired old situations. This movie does not.
On the whole, it's entertaining. I had a good time, save for the boring bits, and the fizzle of an ending, so I can't say that I hated Synecdoche, New York. I was just disappointed. Just because a movie is challenging, or has oneiric imagery, does not make it inherently a good movie. There has be a heart beating under the symbolism, and this movie just doesn't have it.