I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again
Synecdoche, New York
(Small spoiler alert)
The truest line in the film goes something like “The world is not full of six billion extras – but six billion people who are the leading characters in their own lives”.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, and the very fact that I can’t be bothered to look up the script online and quote it verbatim shows an atypical lack of pedantry on this protagonist’s part – which in itself speaks volumes about how small an impact the overall film had on me.
The above paraphrase, however, does encapsulate what is clever about the film. While at first glance it might just appear to be self-indulgent and pointless, the film is in fact an appropriately self-referential almost-parody of the theatrical world and its creative angst, which is (or can be considered) often self-indulgent and pointless. Who doesn’t feel as though they are the lead role in the dramatisation of their own life? Who hasn’t decided who would play them in a movie of their life? (For me, Cameron Diaz. The “rules” of the game allow for “upselling” when casting.)
So to that end, the notion of casting actors to play oneself is nicely handled. That is, until it gets rather convoluted and altogether too Lynchian, for my tastes at least. While Kaufman doesn’t go as far as to make it nonsensical (in the way that Lynch often does with no qualms whatsoever), neither does he make it easy for us. Frankly I found the “Ellen” character a stretch too far, and one of the less compelling components of the plot. By comparison, Emily Watson’s rendition of Samantha Morton’s Hazel was a delight in every scene – even when playing her normal, English self. So Kaufman is certainly clever, and consistently so.
Perhaps the film’s flaw (apart from the ultimately despondent tone and resulting lack of enjoyment in watching it) is that Kaufman writes brilliant, imaginative stories – but he shouldn’t direct. His previous work was ably handled by Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, two visionary film-makers who brought extremely creative tales to life in beautiful, thought-provoking films. Synecdoche lacks any visual flair – it’s as if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dismal life is manifested in the world he inhabits; the world we must watch for two hours. By the time death finally claims him in the closing scene,
the audience’s relief is palpable.