movie film review | chris tookey

Synecdoche, New York

© Unknown - all rights reserved
  Synecdoche, New York Review
Tookey's Rating
3 /10
Average Rating
6.21 /10
Caden Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hazel Samantha Morton
Full Cast >

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Released: 2008
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 124

Charlie Kaufman’s first fiasco.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

Everyone is entitled to make one colossal mistake, and this is Charlie Kaufman’s. Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation won him a reputation as the world’s cleverest screenwriter. In his directing debut, he tries misguidedly to make his own version of Fellini’s 8 and a Half and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, a surrealistic, stylized portrait of a womanising artist.

His anti-hero is a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, pictured left) who’s dedicated the non-dating part of his life to the creation of art that is pure, honest and true. So he embarks on a huge theatre project that, not entirely plausibly, rehearses for 17 years without playing in front of an audience. He ends up giving his masterwork the catchy title “Infectious Diseases in Cattle”.

Throughout the film there is a whiff of stale body fluids and putrescent decay, as our hero shares with us his worries about his weirdly coloured bowel movements, weeping eyes and suppurating skin diseases – in Dennis Potter terms, he’s the whingeing defective. He suffers not so much from hypochondria as a determination to depress us with the information that we are all ageing and falling apart. It may be that the whole film, which has a spaced-out sense of time and logic, is the hero’s semi-disconnected reminiscence as he lies dying.

Virtually all the women in his life age and perish too, including his artistic ex-wife (a sharp-tongued Catherine Keener), his longterm fan, assistant and lover (an adoring Samantha Morton) and the daughter he loses (played as an ailing adult by Robin Weigert), who’s seduced by his ex-wife’s lesbian friend (a guttural Jennifer Jason Leigh) and reacts to her father’s “desertion” by becoming a German-speaking, tattooed stripper in a peep-show, the way you do.

Among the other women he manages to attract are two of his leading actresses (an intense Michelle Williams and an impish Emily Watson) and his psychoanalyst (a strict but sexy Hope Davis, pictured right).

Does that potted narrative sound like a masculine ego-trip? Well, to a large extent it is. There is an element of send-up in Kaufman’s central idea, of a cosseted director so bound up with self-expression that he loses interest in his audience and, indeed, everyone except himself. But there is a sense in which the film lovingly embraces the same fault.

There are touches of wry humour and flashes of near-brilliance, but Kaufman’s not nearly as bright or original as he wants to be. His film is about the way life transmutes into art, but the art he creates is so lifeless as to be alienating. It’s a piece poking fun at morbid self-indulgence, that becomes morbid and self-indulgent itself.

“No one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own,” wails a priest, speaking out loud what Kaufman fears is true, and he’s right. Fatally for its commercial prospects, Synecdoche is something that no previous Kaufman picture has been: depressive, pretentious, overlong and supremely unattractive in its self-pity.

Regard with the utmost distrust anyone who assures you that this is a work of genius. It has roughly the audience appeal of a fat-cat MP moaning on and on about the publication of his expenses.

Key to Symbols