Synecdoche, New York ★★★½

Watched as part of the June 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Evan Whitford's master list
#12: A Film With Deep, Philosophical Themes

2017 movie viewings, #85. As someone whose main professional interest is in reviewing contemporary literary fiction, not contemporary movies, I find Charlie Kaufman to be a really fascinating character; because he's essentially trying to bring the spirit of contemporary academic literary fiction to the world of mainstream movies, and in many ways you can see a film like Synecdoche, New York as directly comparable to, say, a John Updike novel. As such, then, it's difficult to do a short synopsis of what the movie is "about," because that's the entire point -- it isn't academic literary fiction at all if you can't write an entire 200-page doctoral thesis on its themes, metaphors and other Big Ideas -- but in general we can say that it's the story of one of those weirdo Atlantic Seaboard academic intellectuals much like Kaufman himself and his friends (played here by a nebbish Philip Seymour Hoffman), a respected playwright who has run away from The City to live with the other curmudgeonly intellectuals in a small town in the Hudson River Valley upstate, along with his smartypants painter wife and their overly precocious five-year-old daughter.

In the roughest terms possible, then, the movie itself is about the ups and downs over a 20-year period of this playwright's life (in which, among other developments, his estranged wife leaves him and moves to Berlin, he starts a new relationship with the box-office manager of the regional theater where he stages many of his plays, and he develops a series of medical problems which may or may not be cancer); but at the same time, he receives a prestigious quarter-million-dollar MacArthur "genius" grant, and uses the money to buy a derelict warehouse and start developing the grandest autobiographical play the human race has ever known (one in which he hires actors to play all the various people in his real life, staging fictional scenes mere minutes after actual conversations, while hiring a construction crew of hundreds to build literal 1:1 scale replicas in the warehouse of the various locations in his life that are crucial to these developments), a project which eventually consumes him as he loses track of time, space, and what exactly is or isn't reality. But of course, like I said, that's about the most surface-level interpretation of the story possible; it's also a meditation on the creative process, on relationships and their beginnings and ends, on the ways that parents shape and partially control the long-term fates of their children, and a whole lot more.

Ultimately I'm glad that there are people like Charlie Kaufman out there, pushing the boundaries of what we consider contemporary film, and daring to ask why we can't bring the sensibilities of academic fiction to this notoriously dumbed-down medium. But to continue the comparison I made earlier, I also find myself reacting to Kaufman's films much like I do to an Updike novel; kind of interesting, kind of fascinating, but a little too clever for its own good, and so reliant on intellectual parlor tricks that we lose any sense of real stakes, making it incredibly difficult to care about any of the characters' fates or what's going to happen next to them. And that too is the point of academic literary fiction, and the things I just mentioned are the very reasons that fans of this genre love it so much; but it's not exactly for me, I have to confess, with this being a movie I can enjoy as a high-minded puzzle but one I couldn't get into as a three-act narrative story. It should all be kept in mind when deciding whether or not to rent it yourself.

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