I don’t ask that everyone like arthouse movies. God knows I get in moods when the idea of sitting through two hours of french people smoking cigarettes while they screw up their lives and talk about Nietzche (in subtitles) just doesn’t appeal to me. That’s why movies like “Wall-E” and “Iron Man” are on my top ten list; if a movie can pull off interesting themes and good character development within the framework of an audience-pleasing story, I tend to respect it even more.
Which is why my choice of Synecdoche, New York as the most underrated film of the year surprises even me. On the surface it has everything that can drive me crazy about an arthouse film: whiny characters, discussions of philosophy, surrealist scenes and events, story points that are vague and frustrating, and a downer ending. But it also has one thing most other indie films don’t have: Charlie Kaufman.
I’ve loved Kaufman since Malkovich. He manages to always be idea-laden and edgy without succumbing to self-aggrandizement, arrogance or condescension. His movies are very insecure, and I love it. They are smart and honest and always pushing themselves to do something new without patting themselves on the back when they achieve it. This is the first time Kaufman has directed, and the best compliment I can give him is this: he directs in the same way that he writes.
Synecdoche tackles all the great big questions of life, and when most movies are that ambitious they usually end up being very smug and self-satisfied and dismissibly condescending. You really think you have something to say about death that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, unnamed filmmaker?
Kaufman, however, all but admits that he doesn’t have anything to say. In some ways that is what the movie is about–that shared experience of life and death that either means everything or nothing. Nobody is quite sure which, even the filmmakers.
To really try and explain what the movie is about would be an exercise in futility. Not necessarily because it is confusing or “transcendent,” but because it remains, through all its surrealist imagery and time-shifting devices, a movie about characters slowly working to figure out what their lives are about. So the meaning changes moment to moment depending on the state-of-mind of the characters and the events they are experiencing.
I’ve only watched the movie once, but it really does feel like a movie that will have different meanings each time you watch it. I usually hate this in a film. Whenever a film is “open to interpretation,” that usually just means it can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be or it relies on vague and meaningless imagery to make you think it’s “deep.” Put a chair in the middle of a pig sty filled with naked over-the-hill models and everyone will find a meaning, even if the “art,” itself, is completely devoid of intention and value.
Synecdoche, though, feels constructed from the ground up. It is as if Charlie Kaufman creates a group of characters with their own problems and eccentricities. Then he watches their lives play out. By being honest about their interactions, scenes emerge. By linking these scenes by plot threads and internal character analysis, a movie gets made. The meaning doesn’t necessarily come from artificially inserting motifs or themes, but from the characters analyzing and making choices in their own lives.
When looked at from that wildly unique perspective, every event is important. Every look, and line, and set design choice has meaning, because it has meaning to the characters. And because we are there to experience the lives of these characters and judge their actions, every moment has meaning for the audience.
Maybe that’s what the movie is about. That and death.
I realize that I am waxing crazy philosophical and most likely dipping into “deep hippie” mode, but the movie really isn’t that. It’s self-deprecating and funny and weird and honest and false. It doesn’t love any of its characters or hate them, it just presents them. And, in the end, it says they are really not all that different from each other, or from us. Whether we are being legitimate or playing a part in life, it all comes to the same experiences and the same fears, thoughts, and emotions. And then we die.
That is where this movie moves beyond “interesting” into the realm of “brilliant,” and, yes, I would even say “moving.” There comes a moment when you realize as an audience member that the complicated plot and structure and all the themes, as meaningful and worthy of consideration as they are, all converge on one definite uncontrollable endpoint.
It’s not an uplifting film. But it feels honest without wallowing in sadness or despair.
So many movies choose a tone before they choose a story. So many movies are worried about delivering a message instead of showing us honest characters. Throughout every frame of this movie, you can feel Kaufman fighting this, asking himself two questions. 1) am I being honest? and 2) should anyone give a shit?
The answer to both is yes. So even though the movie feels disjointed (on purpose, I’d argue), it isn’t. It’s a movie that makes you think and makes you feel. And its a movie that feels like it is speaking directly to only you–assuming, of course, that you are open to what it has to say.
I know I have neglected to talk about any of the story or plot. I haven’t mentioned a single scene or a single actor. For this one, the less you know, the better. I’m not afraid of spoiling it for you…that would be nearly impossible. I’m afraid of making you think it’s something it’s not. Every synopsis I have read thus far is wrong. Every character description is misleading.
If you showed this movie to ten people, five would love it, and five would hate it. But I guarantee each one would have completely different reasons behind his/her opinion. Each person finds different elements with which to define the movie, and I am convinced that almost all are placed intentionally by the filmmakers. I’ve had friends point out things that, in hindsight, are much more significant than I’d realized at the time, and it forces me to reconsider the movie as a whole.
This movie needed some awards love, and it got very little. I don’t expect it to win, and I don’t even think it’s the kind of movie that would be universally loved. But it swings for the fences more than any other film this year, and mostly succeeds. For that, it deserves all the credit I can give it.