Charlie Kaufman is hurt, for a number of reasons. For one, something inside of him is fueling his overwhelmingly dreary yet whimsical and meekly hopeful screenplays. For another, the reviews on his latest film are out, and they're a mixed bag. The critics review and get read, Hollywood puts out and gets seen, people pay for tickets and popcorn, and somewhere in the whole mess of things, Kaufman, 50, stuck his neck out farther than any filmmaker in recent memory. But to describe Synecdoche, New York as the brave new personal statement of Charlie Kaufman is a discredit to him, to the film, or to anyone reading this. Because art looks outward, as well as inward. The harshest criticism that reviewers level at the film take aim in its inherent self-reflexiveness and indulgent, illogical nature (so they say). That is to say the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is still using the tools that define him the most. This film, Kaufman's directorial debut, however, is not interested in tinkering with formula, upsetting expectations, or otherwise proving to the world how clever Charlie Kaufman is. It is one man's examination of life, sex, and death.
I'm going to eschew plot summary for the same reason Kaufman intentionally disregards familiar progression, continuity, and the clear distinction between reality, delusion, and metaphor. There are no establishing shots. No answers to whether seemingly unreal phenomena is or is not actually happening. No voiceover or titles or montages to guide the viewer through the forty plus years the film explores. Time simply slips away, uncontrollably, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes instantaneously. The audience finds itself in the same uncomfortable continuum as the characters in the film; in the same unsettling emotion that one feels in everyday life, that the days and years have gone by without you even realizing. The film is a series of scenes, of images, emotions linked together tangibly and intangibly, but never overtly. Its the closest thing to art that has gotten this wide of a release in years.
Stylistically, Kaufman has carved his own path through a motion picture. He does quiet drama, comedic understatement, and helpless pain in a brand that is both unlike Jonze and Gondry, his two previous collaborators. Uninterested or perhaps unable to induce visual flourish, his directorial hand digs deeper, churning the film from underneath, playing with time and delivery in such a way that results in a deeply original vision. The film is two hours, though it feels longer, and that is coming from someone who was totally engrossed in the film. The lack of the discernible act structure makes it impossible to judge where you are in the movie, but by the end, the central theme is still communicated. The credits roll, and it is over, and eventually your own eighty years, give or take, will end, faster and slower than you thought it would. Without buildup, without resolution, without warning.
Find a way to see Synecdoche, New York. It is quality work done by one of the few original, important writers working within the Hollywood system. It is not escapist, in the traditional sense or even in the Charlie Kaufman sense, whose previous films always dealt with a fantastical device that highlighted certain aspects of ourselves that lay murky and unexplored. Synecdoche, New York aspires to be more than even an interesting indie-arthouse flick. It aspires to life and the human experience, and attempts to answer the same questions we all ask ourselves. A synecdoche indeed.