One has not truly suffered as a moviegoer until seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman perform a seizure in Synecdoche, New York. This freak-out has nothing to do with art and more to do with career promotion: Our cultural gatekeepers have rushed to crown ham-actor Hoffman King of the Ugly and Obvious Art Movie. And Charlie Kaufman’s been dubbed a genius ever since he wrote the preternaturally clever gimmick movie Being John Malkovich. Now Kaufman’s been commissioned to make his own weird directorial debut, starring the unctuous Hoffman as his latest disgusting alter ego. It is as close to an abomination as 2008 cinema needs to come.
Entirely too “clever”—filled with half-ideas—this story about upstate New York theater director Caden Cotard
(Hoffman) parades all of Kaufman’s neuroses: sexual frustration, creative surfeit (not a creative block), body hatred and celebrity paranoia. What’s missing is universality; that’s swallowed up by Kaufman’s intellectual egomania. Caden goes from re-staging Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a yuppie’s geriatric nightmare performed by twenty-somethings to mounting big-budget surrealistic art movies on a mammoth soundstage. This advertises Kaufman’s distance from Miller’s sentimentality while congratulating hipsters for their cynical whimsy—and their ignorance of Fellini’s 8 1/2. In Synedoche, Kaufman has been afforded a privilege he doesn’t deserve; his unimaginative imagery never comes close to the magnificence that visionary director John Moore creates in the turbulent tableaux of Max Payne.
Kaufman’s artiness ignores political reality—further congratulating hipsters who prefer Todd Haynes-style narcissism to Todd Solondz’s humane sociological explorations (Kaufman imitates both). This is exactly the overboard pomposity Kaufman threatened in his first scripts, Malkovich and Human Nature. Passing off egghead neurasthenia as genius, Kaufman makes Caden so convinced he’s dying that in addition to seizures, he breaks out in sores. It’s even suggested that Caden’s divorce from Catherine Keener is a projection of his own death wish—like the male/female, young/old doppelganger characters who hound and perplex him. When Kaufman delivers Caden’s final, bleak message—“Everyone is everyone. You’re Ellen and all her meager sadness”—I longed for the days when a Woody Allen character “made a meager living selling meagers.”
Pity those nerds and fashion-sheep who’ll waste time trying to connect Kaufman’s symbols, cite the many David Lynch references and puzzle for ways to use “synecdoche” in daily conversation. Also pity the very good actresses—Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton and Dianne Wiest—who Kaufman convinced to appear dumpy and repulsive. They also had to work with Le Hoffman.
Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman, Running Time: 124 min.
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