Synecdoche New York

My, what a fertile imagination Charlie Kaufman has. All praise to him for coming up with wondrously original ideas. What a shame, though, that the finished product doesn't always fulfill them. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, for example, both had a terrific premise, but their respective end results didn't quite satisfy - althought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind certainly scored.

His new movie, marking his directorial debut, will bewilder some and aggravate others, while another contingent will be awed by the depth of his ideas and astonished by his wide-reaching ambition. Two critics walked out of the screening I attended, however, so opinion will certainly be divided. Hoffman gives an excellent performance as a dishevelled and rather ill theatre director living in the suburb of Synecdoche (pronounced Sih-neck-doh-kee). He has a four-year-old daughter and is unhappily married to Keener. She wants a more vibrant life and leaves him to go abroad, taking their daughter with her.

Soon after Hoffman receives an arts grant to stage a major theatre production at a disused venue in New York. Said production takes up the rest of his life, the rehearsal process lasting decades with the play never actually viewed by an audience. In that time he has an affair with his box office assistant/cum stage manager Morton, fathers a child with leading actress Williams and years later sleeps with Watson, another performer in his play (Watson appears topless in one scene - and looks fabulous). All the while he is tortured at not being able to see his daughter, who has since become a heavily tatooed performance artist.

The plot isn't important, however - Kaufman's treatise on fundamental and metaphysical issues is what concerns him. His impressionistic, left-field style details his meditations on art, sex, mortality, family, existence and death among other things. You'll either be gripped and amazed at his creativity or it will leave you bored - as it did me. Is it compelling or absorbing? Do the characters move you? Can you identify with them? Do you care about them? The answer is no. One watches from a distance. It never draws you in, its intellect keeping one removed at all times. If you surrender to it you'll find it an amazing and unique experience, but this reviewer found it too cold and indeed ugly in places to be entertained.  Plaudits though for coming up with something so boldly original and audacious, but it needs more heart to be shown as well as thought.
SECOND OPINION | Roshini Isweran *****
All hail Charlie Kaufman, master of all things bonkers and beautiful, whose past efforts as screenwriter include cult classics Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich and who now makes his directorial debut with Synecdoche, NY. Even by Kaufman’s standards, this is a work of unparalleled originality and his most ambitious movie to date.

Kaufman’s screenplay once again displays his astonishing ability to think giant leaps outside the box, but what elevates it is his utter commitment to his characters and steadfast refusal to shy away from anything too personal.  Synecdoche, NY is riddled with cool little quirks that won’t fit neatly into a plot synopsis but will send your mind reeling for days afterwards (any guesses as to why Samantha Morton’s character Hazel’s house is perpetually on fire would be most welcome). Kaufman makes no apologies for his film’s highbrow tendencies, as the title alone suggests – synecdoche, in case you were wondering, is a figure of speech where a part of a thing is used to describe the whole – but taken as a whole, Synecdoche, NY is as heart-breaking as it is cerebral and, at times, very funny indeed.

Synecdoche, NY is pure celluloid marmite.  It won’t be to everyone’s taste.  Despite its potential to polarise audiences, (on its US release some thought it self-indulgent and depressing, others ingenious and life-affirming) one thing that cannot be denied is its staying power.  Whereas some films disappear out of mind almost instantly, escaping like steam from a kettle, Synecdoche, NY will stay bubbling away in your brain for a very long time to come.

Official Site
Synecdoche New York at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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