Synecdoche, New York
Review By: Joe

Charlie Kaufman has written a bunch of cool screenplays. Most of them were flawed to a degree, but I pretty much always enjoyed myself when I watched one of his movies. Now they let him write and direct a movie called Synecdoche, New York, which it's too easy yet feels so right to pronounce as "Synecdouche, New York."

What a colossal waste of time this movie is. It wants to be very smart and I'm sure Kaufman at least thinks he's striving to get at quite a lot of answers or, at least, questions, but many of those went over my head and I'll be goddamned if I'll ever sit through this load of horse apples again. I can certainly cover the obvious themes the film addresses, however:

1. Death.

2. Be a doer, not a thinker (or at least cut down on the latter and do more of the former).

3. Art consumes life and life consumes art or some gay bullshit, I dunno.

The thing is that by the time we've slogged through the first hour (if not before that), we already get all of this. But then it keeps going. And going. And going, and going, and going. It's like if the Energizer Bunny went all emo. And it's so relentlessly grim and boring it feels debilitating. I couldn't get my brains to work at optimal capacity until about two hours and a beer afterwards.

Caden's wife attempts to explain the plot to him. Caden becomes annoyed that his time is being wasted.

It's not even that it's depressing. I mean, it is. But it's so constantly over-the-top depressing that you can't take it seriously. It even seems to know it's overly pessimistic during the few brief moments where Kaufman remembers his main role here is supposed to be to entertain and pokes some fun at his protagonist Caden's dismalness. This is another problem with the film. It knows it's too depressing, but it goes right on being depressing anyway. It knows that theatre (the lead character is a theatre director) is pretty ridiculous and full of ridiculous people who think they're deeper than they are, but it forces us to watch them thinking they're deep for just over two hours. It knows that Caden's quest is futile, but insists on playing this futility out far more than necessary. If you tell a person "I know that this is morally wrong and unfair to you" as you stab them to death, they're still unlikely to side with you.

I can give this film a few positives. It's filled to the brim with arthouse actors who eat this "life is endless torment and the character is never redeemed" bullshit up so they're all really very good. If the material was good, it'd matter more, but as it is, they're just very good actors in a very crap setting. Also, considering how convoluted the script is, it is impressive that I more or less knew what was going on the whole time. There were also a few brief portions where I could see a glimmer of what it is I usually like about Charlie Kaufman's movies, but these were few and far between. I also think the part where Caden speaks to his dying German-speaking estranged daughter using a headset translator was (and was supposed to be) funny, though I think my friend and I were the only ones in the theater laughing. This scene was one of the few times the film felt as though it was negative to the point of absurdity, so pessimistic it was laughable, but intentionally so. Usually, I wasn't clear on whether I was meant to laugh at Caden or feel sorry for him and I was therefore unable to do either. The negativity was too over the top for me to feel bad, but, at the same time, it wasn't handled with nearly enough levity for me to find much humor in it. So what we have here is a tragedy that fails at being sad and/or a dark comedy that isn't funny.

But what's the main problem here? Like I said, it's not so much that it's legitimately depressing, it's just that its depression is so ceaseless that it managed to rape my mind so thoroughly. I think I'd have had a similar problem if I had to watch a film that was constantly, unflinchingly happy, like Teletubbies: The Movie (or maybe Happy-Go-Lucky, I dunno, I ain't seen it). I've realized that this is the issue with this film. There are a few exceptions, but, for the most part, it's got one mood, it's got one idea, and it's got nothing else. There's nothing to break up the monotony. I can't think of any other film I've seen that completely disregards the possibility of its audience getting bored, gives you one thing and then just shovels it onto you again and again and again. I mean this literally. Seriously, I lost count of how many funerals I saw in this movie (one review said eight, which sounds like it might be a joke, but could also actually be accurate).

One review I read said that the reason Kaufman's films have worked in the past is that he's been teamed up with directors who are far more whimsical than he is and manage to bring out the bright spots in his movies. I'd never thought about it that way, but, upon reflection, much of the subject matter of his films is quite negative and I can't say any of them have a definite conclusion (though you could certainly argue this new one does), let alone a positive one. It makes sense that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry, the most carefree Frenchman alive, is Kaufman (and Gondry's) best movie (though Gondry also directed Kaufman's Human Nature, but I think that was just a weaker film). Eternal Sunshine can be seen as mostly a series of conversations between a couple, yet, in my opinion, it doesn't feel like that at all because Gondry did something right with it. Everything in this new film from the set design to the dialogue to the soundtrack is plodding, miserable, and redundant. So, maybe, if someone else had directed, this would've turned out better, but I'm skeptical. It's hard to find whimsy in a film when it seems so set on denying you it. A different director, a heavy amount of script editing, and an altogether new soundtrack...okay, mmmmmaybe.

"Wait, there are people watching us?"  "Oh shit, I forgot."

This movie isn't getting tons of critical acclaim, but it's getting some and it's getting a fair share of public attention. Why? Well, I guess it's because Charlie Kaufman has a reputation at this point so people are interested in seeing what he'll do next. We've also got the added possibility that people think that watching a movie in which nothing good happens ever (examples: 21 Grams, Requiem for a Dream, Dancer in the Dark) means they are watching art and that they are watching a "real film." You aren't supposed to enjoy yourself at a "real film," you're supposed to leave confused, maybe a bit upset, and sort of lost, like you've been wandering around Home Depot for over two hours. It's like, oh shit, I went to see High School Musical 3 (no, I didn't) last week and smiled a few times so this is my pennance. But, you know what? No. Just like a Hollywood blockbuster shouldn't be allowed to get away with being completely vapid (read: The Transformers Argument), a "serious" film should still entertain us.

I actually heard a young lad in the bathroom after the film saying to his friend, "Well that movie was..........fucked up. I'll definitely have to watch it again." Seriously, they were both clearly as numbed by the tediousness of the thing (the total silence of the friend even more telling than the kid who spoke) as I was and yet there was this apparent duty instilled within them to see the movie again as though that they didn't get out of the film what they wanted was somehow their fault, like they were the ones in the wrong by somehow watching the movie incorrectly because it certainly couldn't be the filmmakers who screwed up somewhere along the line. Movies shouldn't be telling you how to feel about them. If all you can muster was that it was..........fucked up, what you obviously want to say is something more to the effect of "That was disappointing and repetitious and overall quite bad." So just say it. Because it's true.

The bottom line here is that Charlie Kaufman took over two hours (that felt like three) to say what was long ago summed up in six words and, fittingly, applies to the movie and that kid in the bathroom:

Shit or get off the pot.

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