The motif of Charlie Kaufman’s stories usually involves a depressed man striving to tackle an epic example of his personal and professional worth. It’s the puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, the scientist in Human Nature, the screenwriter in Adaptation, the ex-boyfriend in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and now, the theater director of Synecdoche, New York.
Of all his screenplays, Synecdoche is probably the bleakest but also the most challenging and original. It’s a film full of ideas so ambitious and astounding, that the final product could certainly never meet its full potential (much like the film’s characters themselves). That said, it comes closer than it should, and ultimately succeeds as a powerful and resonant near-masterpiece.
It’s hard to sum up the film’s premise with a simple synopsis, but it all hinges on a struggling director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his quest to mount a theatrical project so dense and complicated that I won’t even try to explain it. All I can try to explain is what the film makes you feel: I was challenged by it, but also challenged to look away. The characters and the events are complex to the point that you’d be wise not to leave for a bathroom break or a phone call. There’s a richness to the material that you don’t normally see at the movies.
The flaws of Syndecdoche (which, I’d argue, only occur in the first half) speak to a very real fact: Kaufman is such a brilliant screenwriter, that only a brilliant director will know how to handle his productions. In his previous four (produced) screenplays, it was either Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry at the helm. Both of these men speak a heightened visual language that mixes well with Kaufman’s narrative talents. For this film, Kaufman directed it himself, and while it’s an impressive debut, he lacks the chops to translate his own stories. The good but mixed first half of the film is rushed, with the progress of the characters cut short. By the second half, the story breathes, and is better for it.
If Kaufman had followed the same lessons learned by Hoffman’s character in the film, he may have decided that the best way to tell your story is to let someone else help you.