|Synecdoche, New York
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Michelle Williams
The problem with Synecdoche, New York is that it has very little direct about it or direction within it. The irony is that it's a film about a director.
Many of us have long admired Charlie Kaufman's writing; his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are among the best and most original in the past quarter century or more. All three have been given Academy Award nominations, and Eternal Sunshine won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar a few years ago.But now he's directing, and as far as that goes, he probably should have chosen a project with a little more to grab onto.
Synecdoche is a play on words of the New York town of Schenectady, referenced at the beginning of the film. It's a real word, though, and it means using part of a thing to describe the whole of that thing. In recent political parlance, think Joe the Plumber. He's a synecdoche of disaffected working class voters. It could also be the opposite, where something larger than what is being described is used to describe it. Or it could be substituting the general for the specific or substituting the specific for the general. For example, I call soft drinks "Coke" because it conveys the same thing.
It's an even more confounding title than Quantum of Solace, isn't it? It actually does make sense within the framework of the story, but that's sure a long way to go to get there.
And anyway, confusing people doesn't make for a great movie, even if you're David Lynch. That's really what undoes this film, because there's so little connective tissue between what Kaufman wants to tell us and what I think we see. He's concerned with a theatrical director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to do something glorious with the MacArthur Grant he's just received. He wants to write a play that is brutal and honest, although the production he eventually mounts is more the mirrored reflection of honesty than it is the real thing.
There are some good performances, I think, though Kaufman gives us very little time or context in which we can admire Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, or Samantha Morton. Hoffman sells the weariness and anger and frustration of his character throughout, but I wish he didn't have to work so hard to do it. That blame also falls on Kaufman's script; characters and changes flit in and out of scenes without making their own impact, forcing Hoffman to react to them all the more.
Synecdoche, New York is far from being Kaufman's best or most inventive work. It's also the least accessible. There are multiple ways into most movies, a byproduct of having different character types we can relate to or stories that remind us of our own journeys or struggles. None of those things can be found here, and the film, like Hoffman's character, is pretty isolated, walled off from reality. That might be Kaufman's point, I'm not sure, but regardless of what that point is, I can't rationalize why he thought it was important enough to build this movie around it.