Last week my brain had regressed to being nine years old, and I’d hoped the damage hadn’t been permanent. It seems that maybe I’ve caused more damage to my intellectual core than I’d at first realised. Synecdoche New York is by one of my favourite screenwriters (Charlie Kaufman). It’s been soaked in the slather of critics' praise, considered by some to be a masterpiece. And I’m never one to admit failure. Or a weakness in my brain. But I have to admit this.
I didn’t understand.
God it feels weird to write that.
Kaufman’s ideas have always astounded and excited me, his audacity to write himself into his own film (Adaptation), or crushing interpretation of relationships (Eternal Sunshine). Even a hole that leads into John Malkovich’s brain makes some sort of sense. But with Synecdoche I failed even at the first hurdle of pronouncing the bloody title. Featuring the ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theatre director who… well, loses his mind? Dies? Dreams? Or really does create a replica of New York inside a giant warehouse in order to create a play reflecting real life. God knows.
The trouble is the film plays out its duration without explanation, which is normally fine and dandy. Films that make you go “huh?” until their end reveal are often a joy, because you can then go back over the film with a new understanding and pick up on a heck of a lot more. Synecdoche, however, gives a hazy explanation, possibly hidden in a monologue or two or some reference to the time or whatever. It’s unclear. And being unclear just a little so you can have a ponder and figure stuff out for yourself is all well and good. But being so unclear that you leave without anything to go by at all means you’ve spent the last two hours watching something weird and meaningless. And if I wanted to do that I’d just watch Inland Empire again.
The frustration is there are some lovely moments and ideas in here. The warehouse-within-a-warehouse. The actors playing actors playing the main characters. The therapist. The strange dentist. The speeches, like “we're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.” This could be a stark exploration of what it means to be alive. It could well be. Or maybe not. But what it definitely is, is confusing.
With a stellar cast (among others there’s Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson) and a superb writer, this film should have been one of the best. It’s been dubbed “ambitious”, which is certainly true. But in adding too many layers and hiding the clues, Kaufman seems to have made it just that bit too difficult. Like a jigsaw puzzle featuring baked beans – the only puzzle my mother has ever given up in her illustrious jigsaw career – there is being tricky enough to test you but cause enjoyment, and being so tricky that it just ends up left in pieces on the table.
In short: though I’m curious to re-watch in order to try and make sense and perhaps gain more enjoyment from the numerous particulars I may have missed first time around, Synecdoche New York is still a disappointment. Tiny pieces of brilliance stirred into some baffling soup. I can’t even fathom what rating it should get, so will stick to a CF0. It doesn’t seem right to mark it lower than 17 Again, but also doesn’t seem right to give it higher marks when it made me admit to not understanding. Let’s hope my higher brain function returns soon.