So last night I finally saw Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.
I’m a big fan of Kaufman’s other films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich are all brilliant works. Adaptation in particular spoke to me as a writer on multiple levels, and I think it’s one of those films all artists should see.
Thar be spoilers ahead, if you care.
Synecdoche and Adaptation actually have a lot of similar themes. They each feature a main character who is struggling to write a screenplay. Both of them are extremely unreliable narrators, are neurotic, and have trouble with the romantic half of their lives.
But I think where Adaptation succeeds where Synecdoche fails is in telling a tight story in a cohesive fashion. Synecdoche covers the main character’s entire life, and ultimately this is a main character who completely fails not just in his personal life but professionally as well – he never finishes this screenplay that he’s been working on for 50 years.
During that time, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lives largely in his own head, and that’s how we see the world. Caden is absolutely an unreliable narrator. He’s sick, self-absorbed, obsessed with death, and terrified that he won’t create something memorable. Since everything we see is entirely from his point of view, we see a world full of metaphor and confusion. The film forces us to share in his warped perception of time and memory.
So the result is a film full of surreal dream scenes and half-truths interpreted through Caden’s world view. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, but I’m afraid it makes the narrative extraordinarily dense and difficult to follow. On top of all that, Kaufman indulges in his meta-storytelling story within a story stuff that can be confusing even without such a disturbed narrator.
Caden is a fascinating character, and the film serves as a good study of that character. But I think the nature of the way the story is told makes it virtually impenetrable to the average viewer. To be fair, it probably would have been pretty boring told in a more traditional fashion.
So while Synecdoche, New York is a brilliant idea, but ends up being nearly unwatchable. It’s interesting, high concept stuff that simply isn’t all that entertaining.