Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Synecdoche, New York


Here’s an object lesson in why you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high. In my opinion, Charlie Kaufman is the most exciting writer working in Hollywood today. After an apprenticeship in TV, he exploded onto the scene with Being John Malkovich, one of the most amazing films ever made and a great favorite of mine. When I saw John Cusack manipulating a puppet of Emily Dickenson … writing a poem! … I was knocked out. Just think about it. And when they arrived at the office on the 7½th floor … my jaw was just permanently hanging open. And it got even crazier from there! Then there was Human Nature, which didn’t quite work for me, but don’t worry, right after that was the gonzo bio-pic of that pathological liar, Chuck Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and then the hilarious Adaptation, and then—drum roll, please!—his masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which earned him the Original Screenplay Oscar. Talk about original! I’d never seen anything like it. The absolute best science fiction takes a premise and then relentlessly explores everything that premise implies, some of it far from obvious. In this film, the crazy idea is that they can selectively wipe your memory clean of unpleasant experiences. Your love affair has gone sour, so that you now hate the one you cherished? Simple, just make it as it she never existed. You slept together for ten years; now you wouldn’t recognize her if you sat next to her on a train. Sounds good, right? Well …

(My favorite lines of dialogue, and a good example of Kaufman’s sense of humor:
Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation IS brain damage, but it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.)

So now Charlie is in the director’s chair, and I can hardly wait …

Oof. Like a punch in the breadbasket. After the first half hour I was getting antsy, but I expected the better parts to lie just ahead. Only they never arrived …

Premise: Caden Cotard is a director in a small regional theater. His life is coming apart. His wife, who paints pictures that can’t be seen without a magnifying glass, takes off to Paris with their daughter. He does nothing but get more depressed. Then he wins a McArthur “genius grant,” which enables him to begin an endless theater project, a study of his life played out in an enormous warehouse in which he is building a full-scale replica of New York City. (A synecdoche is a figure of speech whereby a part represents the whole, as in 50 head of cattle, or a set of wheels—a car. Don’t feel bad; I had to look it up, too.) On this vast and ever-growing canvas, he intends to dramatize his life, for reasons that elude me. He hires people to play himself and all the people in his life.

This is clearly not the world we know, and that’s fine, all of Kaufman’s films tend to happen in some alternate reality where there are ½ floors in buildings and inept technicians erasing memories from minds. But it just does not work. It could have, and during the last, tedious hour I spent a lot of time wondering why it didn’t.

The biggest reason, I think, is that I totally disliked Cotard. Maybe even hated him. He is the ultimate narcissist, and a pathetic, whining, repulsive big crybaby. I mean, how self-obsessed do you have to be to spend (twenty? thirty? I wasn’t clear, and didn’t really care) years recreating your life on a stage? The most obsessive feats of autobiography pale compared to this. It might have worked if there was some sense of humor involved, some irony, or some satire. None of those things made an appearance. At some points it even seemed we were meant to take this hogwash seriously, to empathize with him. That would be flat-out impossible.

I could go on … but that’s what Kaufman did, endlessly. Soon we have people playing the people he hired to play himself, and himself hiring himself to play his own cleaning lady, and then hiring a woman to play himself as the director, and then having her take over the actual directing … layer upon layer upon layer of complexity that I didn’t have the least impulse to try to figure out.

The great bulk of the movie is clearly symbolic of something. Let me say it in so many words: I hate symbolism. I don’t mind it if it doesn’t get in the way, but when a purple baboon wanders through a scene I will tolerate it only if it’s funny. I will not spend a fraction of a second pondering what the purple baboon represents. For one thing, it may represent one thing to the author, and another (most likely the sin of obscurity and pretentiousness) to me. Or it may just be a purple baboon. I DON’T CARE!!! There is an element here that the Charlie Kaufman of the past might have made into something delightful: one of the characters is living in a house that’s on fire. No need to worry; it’s a very slow fire. It’s still burning when she gets old and dies (of smoke inhalation, which could have been funny in another Kaufman movie). The characters are aware of the fire, she remarks on it when she moves in. Clearly this “means” something. And screw it. I just don’t care.

The truly criminal thing here is that some of the best actresses working today are just wasted on this crap. Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest … wasted, just wasted. Charlie, please stop this senseless prattle and get back to writing good scripts!