Synecdoche, New York
Running Time 124 minutes
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest
The word of the week is contrast. Decorating the top of the cake: a new Clint Eastwood. At the bottom of the cesspool: a new Charlie Kaufman. First, the dregs. There’s always a dumpster full of crap just waiting to lower the I.Q.’s of rational men, but the pain usually wears off fast, and the brain damage is rarely permanent. (Does anybody even remember Borat, Apocalypto or anything with Adam Sandler?) Then, just when you think it’s safe to go back to the movies, the plunger sucks up something from a clogged drain like the unspeakable, unpronounceable Synecdoche, New York, and you’re forced to take back every prematurely made prophecy about “the worst movie ever made.” Because no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity.
Charlie Kaufman. Oy vay. I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll. But nothing that has belched forth from his word processor so far—not the abominable Being John Malkovich, the asinine Adaptation (Meryl Streep even worse than in Mamma Mia!), the artery-clogging Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Chuck Barris from “The Gong Show” a secret operative for the C.I.A.?), not even the jabberwocky of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind—prepared me for a bottom feeder like Synecdoche, New York. It is extremely doubtful that you will sit through all two-hours-plus of this obnoxious drivel—in fact, the fool producers who actually put up the money to finance it owe you a prize if you do—but even if Hollywood bought the myth of Charlie Kaufman, the latest Hollywood example of “the emperor’s new clothes,” as a writer … whatever did he do to convince sane people he could be a director, too? His directorial feature debut reminds me of the spiteful, neurotic brat kicked out of school for failing recess who gets even by throwing himself in front of a speeding school bus.
In the most overblown, hyperbolic stretch since Lassie played a war veteran with amnesia, this year’s program at the Toronto International Film Festival described Synecdoche, New York as “part dream, part puzzle, part brainteaser.” So let’s cut straight to the eye of Katrina. The title, which is as pretentious as the rest of it, is a mispronunciation of the word “Schenectady,” where it takes place, commencing “on the day Harold Pinter died”—a fact, like everything else in a Charlie Kaufman film, that makes no sense and is of no significance whatsoever. Inexhaustible, overworked and creepily overexposed Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the failed director of a mediocre community theater that is staging a disastrous production of Death of a Salesman nobody wants to see. He’s a walking malapropism (he calls a urologist when he needs a neurologist), saddled with an indifferent wife (Catherine Keener) who leaves him for an art career in Berlin. Worse still, he’s a terminal hypochondriac, which gives Kaufman a chance to laugh at gum surgery, seizures, impotence and nervous skin eruptions. In the middle of his psychic turmoil, Mr. Hoffman gets a grant and devotes the money to the creation of a “massive, uncompromising” work destined for Broadway that will express his true tortured inner self. This is where the movie detonates, and for the next hour, it never recovers.
In the literary equivalent of a goiter, the toxic narrative takes a series of detours as Mr. Hoffman goes to Germany to find his daughter and discovers her totally tattooed and living with two stepfathers, a lesbian lover and myriad new siblings, so he casts an actress named Claire (Michelle Williams) in the role of his new wife, and as his lover, he uses a quirky look-alike (Emily Watson) named Tammy, who in real life is a weirdo box-office attendant named Hazel (Samantha Morton), whose house is always literally and figuratively on fire and going down in flames. (A metaphor for the entire movie, if you ask me.) As the ensemble cast vainly attempts to dramatize his domestic life, Tammy is sometimes Hazel, and the new star of the show (Dianne Wiest) doubles as the after-hours cleaning lady. The script is all over the place, like a moth with hiccups. Years pass between scenes as the director disintegrates into a bald blimp of oozing pus, body odor, rotting teeth and bleeding gums. The stage characters and the real people become a blur of make-believe. I finally left when Mr. Hoffman’s father died of cancer and his mother said, “There was so little left of him they had to fill the coffin with cotton balls.” These are the jokes, but all I heard were moans.
It’s interesting, in a sadistic sort of way, to watch good actors crawling through quicksand, and this dreck is full of them. Mr. Hoffman is the biggest masochist in the Screen Actors Guild. At one point, he goes to his ex-wife’s apartment and scrubs her toilets, dressed like a woman named Ellen. Don’t ask. Philip Seymour Hoffman with breasts and latex dewlaps is not a sight I recommend after eating Cajun food. Sometimes the men play women. Sometimes the women play men. Sometimes they all play each other, exchanging faces and identities. Sometimes they’re young, other times they’re old with gray wigs and waffle chins. What does it mean? I wouldn’t tell if I knew. I have no idea whether the director ever found himself or not, but I had no problem finding the exit.