"Synecdoche, New York" is the latest film from the screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann. I say latest film, because Charlie Kaufman is such a visionary screenwriter, he brings attention to the movies he writes, and not the other way round. Also, he actually is directing his own screenplay this time around too.
How this happened (if I remember correctly) is that he and Spike Jonze, in trying to make a horror-film, sat about brainstorming all the things that were truly scary, regrets, death, embarrassment, etc. A script was born, and Spike was due to direct it. However, he pulled out for another project he was offered, but convinced the studio heads to let Charlie direct it himself. So he did.
The film is about a theatre director, Caden Cotard, who, beginning with his first health problem, starts dying harder and harder; his organs are failing like fuselage coming off a falling plane. He's also having trouble with his marriage, and when his wife goes off to Germany with his daughter for a museum showing, they never come back. He starts a relationship with Hazel, a box office attendant who had an enormous crush on him, however, that doesn't pan out, and she goes off and gets married.
All alone, with only various aliments to keep him company, he gets a letter in the mail. "You have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship!" (Sorry to break fourth wall, but honestly, Kaufmann deserves one of these of his own.) A MacArthur Fellowship tasks its awardee to make a work of art or some contribution to humanity, and do the very best you can at it. It also comes with half a million dollars to help you along.
So he decides to put on a play about death. The reality is that he's dying, but then, so is everyone else too. Today we're here, and it seems so real, this moment, I mean, how could it be otherwise, how couldn't it be forever? But then, without even the most miniscule sliver of doubt, one day we will be dead, and we won't be here, in moments like this. But for now, somehow, we are alive, which means we have to keep forgetting or putting off the awareness of this.
He begins production of this play in this enormous theatre space in Schenectady, NY, which is the size of several aircraft hangars. The idea is to build a replica of his life, so that he may understand himself and his reaction to death. So he gets actors to play his wife, Hazel, his daughter, builds mock-ups of his apartment in the space, other buildings in his life, even miniature aircraft hangar theatre spaces! He then starts a relationship with the woman playing his wife, they have a kid, but then they split up, finds a replacement for the role, but only for the one in the play. There's this guy who's been following him for years, he wants to play the part of Caden, Caden agrees, but then this guy starts a relationship with Hazel, but Caden is still in love with her, so that's another mess, and believe you me, things get even more complicated.
Charlie Kaufman, if by some miracle you're reading this, bless your heart. You have done something the world, but definitely I, will not soon forget. You may have no idea how much you risked to say what you said, but on the other hand, possibly no idea what you've also managed, through your film vision, to leave permanent.
I think I can only say that the movie captures some aspects of the mind and life of an artist that have been until now unexplored in film and possibly in art. That's really all I can say. This is movie is like a love letter to the meta-loving postmodern artist, and my head is streaming soft pink hearts for Charlie. I'm sorry if I sound pretentious, but honestly, this movie is a mess, there's a lot that didn't go right. There's too much in it, and it doesn't even pretend to make sense at the end. Kaufmann himself said he didn't have a tidy resolution intended, he went all out and went as far as the ideas led him. So much of the ideas and things you see will be weird if you've never thought or experienced the like before. I worry it becomes near incomprehensible otherwise.
It looks like a mess, but this really isn't. This isn't some grad school student walking around with a camera in a crowd, and editing it to a Mongolian throat-singing soundtrack. It's a $20 million movie, everything you see was moved in and placed specifically there on the set, every thing in every frame was a deliberate choice. You don't always understand why, and not every choice was the right one, but chances are you'll be less clueless about the movie if you've experienced any of the insanity that comes to you when you've been by yourself, moving great big blocks of your imaginations around for weeks, trying to make something new.
I'm a complete fan, and I can't wait to see it again. If you're not into all this artistic wankery stuff, there are also some fantastic performances here, and it's also a moving love story of Caden's relationship with women. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, by the way, one of the best actors alive, this should nab him his second Oscar. There's also something delightfully indulgent about Kaufmann's imagination, and his ideas of what flies for screentime. Over all, a super-rich movie, in production, in acting, in ideas.