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Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)

      Probably too overstuffed and unpleasant to find any kind of broad acceptance, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is an audacious movie that attempts to do it all, about a playwright who tries to accomplish the same in his art. Quickly moving from its initial comedy of neurotic frustration into an incredibly dense panoply of topical concerns, the film asks whether or not it’s a tragedy when the looming specter of death pushes an artist toward an all-consuming and self-absorbed bid for greatness. Judging by the state of this endlessly self-reflective work, yes, maybe it is something tragic, but decidedly not uninteresting, to be so overambitious.


     After a consistently witty first act, Synecdoche, New York becomes too burdened by its hefty thematic baggage. Though one could suggest that Michel Gondry’s music video for Björk’s “Bachelorette” covered this ground far more concisely, the endlessly inventive script and surprisingly dour outlook found here distinguish Kaufman’s work. Nonetheless, for the hour or so at the heart of this film, watching Kaufman’s ambitions unfurl is nothing less than a repetitive chore. As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s consummate artist tears through his relationships and his grant money, accumulating doppelgangers and burning bridges, the unpleasantness of creation is laid bare time and again. That being said, if there’s any movie that I would excuse this kind of narrative breakdown in, it would be in a movie that attempts to cover so much ground that it ultimately becomes about how art hits its limitations when trying to encapsulate the totality of life.


     Fortunately, in its last half hour, Synecdoche, New York delivers a strong closing act that largely redeems the chaos that has come before, giving the impression that it actually has realized more of its great ambitions than not. As a viewing experience, it places great demands on its audience, overwhelming them with a baffling diagram of ever-encircling representations of reality. It’s overwhelming and incessant. During the long passage in the middle of the film, where the twisting permutations of this creation begin to feel overbearing and the frequent temporal jumps drive home the futility of trying to convey the significance of a life in this form, it’s really Jon Brion’s beautifully composed score that gets the viewer through the ordeal. Synecdoche, New York is an imposing film, by design. Its self-aware attempt at greatness is so overt that it could easily alienate. If Kaufman, like his protagonist, can’t satisfactorily realize his masterpiece, though, it’s not due to a lack of effort. The result is messy and uncomfortable, but ultimately as powerful in its failures as its achievements. This may not be a successful film, in the strictest sense, but it manages to succeed at far more than most “perfect” movies do, in spite of its obvious lapses. To a greater extent than any of Kaufman’s previous screenplays, it stretches the limits of cinematic storytelling.




Jeremy Heilman