Synecdoche, New York is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. He also wrote Being John Malkovitch and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two movies I’m a huge fan of, so I was really looking forward to this one. At long last, I watched it. And yea verily, I did dislike it.
I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It’s hugely ambitious, well-acted, smart and intriguing to the point of being frustratingly obtuse. But I just didn’t get into it at all. The story follows a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose artistic life, marriage, and even his body are completely falling apart on him. In the first third or so, the action is presented in a fairly straightforward way until Hoffman’s wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him. From then on, scenes of his life intertwine with the plays he’s trying to write, and as he rewrites and re-casts his masterpiece of a play, the identities of the people and actors around him change, the scenery changes, we leap forward into the future on whims. It didn’t matter to me, not being able to discern the straightforward reality of the story (I wondered from time to time about the timeline in which this all was taking place, and the whereabouts of some characters). What bothered me more was just how hopeless I felt watching this movie.
I like a good downer. Many, if not most, of my favorite movies contain at least one exquisitely devastating moment — sometimes in the very last frame of the movie, with no hope for a reprieve! I’m not positive what it was about Synechdoche that got to me so much, but I think it might have something to do with how unrelenting it was. From the word “go,” we are thrust into this already hellish existence, which never once improves during the course of the movie – nor do we expect it to – and in fact only becomes more surreal. A man’s body completely falls apart on him, horrible confessions and doubts are aired, literally every relationship depicted is in some way dashed or unfulfilled, if not downright destructive.
That said, the elaborate presentation didn’t help matters. Someday, I want to give this movie another shot when I have a little more energy and good will to devote towards it, and when the subject matter alone will not drag me into the depths. For now, Shirley Bennett said it best in the second season episode of Community, “Messianic Myths”: