Synecdoche, New York • 2008 • USA

I've finally seen Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and jeezus. I thought his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was trippy. How this film didn't sweep the Oscars I don't understand. Wait, yes I do. It's relentlessly bleak—in that Woody Allen 'obsessed-with-death' way—but it's also belly crunch hilarious. I had to stop and rewind a dozen times because I missed things, overcome by a wheezing laughter. There is not a feel good moment in the film and yet it left me strangely uplifted.

Charlie Kaufman is a contortionist of the mind. Again, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he stretches and reshapes time (and space, to a degree) until you just have to let go, and yet a firm narrative structure is always present, never abandoned. It's an amazing feat of screenplay-ism.

The film is remarkably cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors working today and he is perfect for the role of representing, on film, the introverted, insecure because he's seen the abyss genius of Charlie Kaufman. His performance is better, ten times better, and funnier, than anything he's done before. Imagine that! Catherine Keener? Has any one ever had a bad word to say about her? The pièce de résistance, however, in a creepy—as if it were meant to be but will never happen again but seems like it may have, or should have, been done before—kind of way is Emily Watson playing Samantha Morton. You'll have to see it to understand. If a fifth wall existed, this film would shatter it.

Casual movie-goers will find Synecdoche, New York difficult, dark, pretentious and hopeless, but if you like film, if you like writing, if you like artistic commitment, if you like mind-fuck hilarity, don't miss it.



  1. Great, so you've watched the movie. And wow, thats some praise you've heaped on the film! Charlie Kaufman's screenplays, as we all know, are brilliant. But opinion has been sharply divided on his directorial debut. Great to know you've liked the movie - sort of propels me to have a go at it myself.

  2. I'm not sure I'm qualified to say which parts of this film are the responsibility of the director and which ones are the responsibility of the writer, especially when they are the same person. I mean, this film is non-stop unlikely to have a favorable outcome. Should the writer or the director have said "hmmm, maybe people won't like that ... should I lighten it up?"

    I read one reviewer who wrote something like "Kaufman sets out to encompass EVERYTHING that makes us human but manages to make room for only that which makes us unhappy." That might be true, but I think it is in the throes of despair that our human-ness is most clearly revealed. And I believe that that's sort of the point. There are many, many scenes in this film, some only a few seconds in length, that are just blows to the head. And they are prominently nothing more than that, to an extent. They stand out. I had dual reactions to almost all of them: "Ouch, jeez, brutal!" and "That was fuckin' funny!" I laughed at almost all of them in their naked ferociousness.

    I don't think one could possibly separate out the talents of this man and say something like 'it was written well, but the direction could have been improved." I think you either like what he's doing all together or you don't.

    Finally, I'd like to say that I had no problem 'following' this film. I watched it a second time and didn't glean anything new from it. And I enjoyed it just as much, with this exception: After seeing it once and experiencing the magical place that it takes you to by film's end, the beginning of the film seems a little ragged and forced, perhaps, precisely because it hasn't gotten to that place of dream logic in which the second half exists. The first half puts forth the realities of real-life suffering, the second half swims about in making art out of them. And we all know the difference between life and art, right?

    I'm pretty confident that in ten to twenty years as we look back on the career of Charlie Kaufman, and that of cinema in general, this will stand out as a masterpiece of film making.

  3. I wrote:

    "The first half puts forth the realities of real-life suffering, the second half swims about in making art out of them. And we all know the difference between life and art, right?"

    I have no idea what it means, however, it's just some rhetorical trope that tricks one into thinking that something profound has been said.

  4. In regards to Kaufman's directorial chops, I felt that he did a magnificent job. Almost as if the layer between Kaufman and the final product that had previously been either Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry (or George Clooney, I guess) was removed. Purer end result in my opinion. Not that Jonze and Gondry were getting it wrong, but it seems like Kaufman observed everything they got right and used it to come right out of the directorial gate with his singular artistic vision whole and intact. I agree that to separate the two jobs in a case like this is meaningless, you could no more say "boy that Fellini script would have benefited from a director who was more concerned with a logical narrative" or "geez, this Bergman guy has great visuals but I wish someone else would write for him." Usually I think it's pretentious when people say this about art, but I truly think this film was a case of the vast majority JUST NOT GETTING IT.

    I also totally agree on the beginning of the film experienced the second time around. But even during the first time I saw it I was literally sitting there wondering what all the fuss was about. Had people just gotten dumber, if they found the first hour or so that hard to follow? Of course then it disposes with the comforts of rigid verisimilitude and dives into the mind.

    Re-reading my review I realize the one big thing I forgot to mention is how funny the movie is. Relentlessly depressing humor, but laugh out loud humor nonetheless.

    Anyway, great thoughts.

  5. OK, just for the sake of balance, I will say that the film has one or two too many poop scenes for my taste, the writer's fault.

    And all the doctor characters were a bit too cliché and not well acted, the director's fault.

    "Is it serious?"
    "Well, we don't know, but yes."

    And I think this film without Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been about as good as The Wrestler without Micky Rourke. I can't think of another actor who could make me laugh out loud just thinking of his scene where Restless Leg Syndrome pops up—a pitch perfectly directed scene.