Film: Charlie Kaufman: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

I find Philip Seymour Hoffman to be almost unbearably truthful an actor. His commitment to his characters as suffering human beings is at least as transparent as Brando or De Niro at their best, and often more visceral in effect: his body is a fat precision instrument – from his thinning hair to his shapeless waist – that seems capable of tuning into complicated, discomforting emotions like a divining rod. His eyes are eternally heavy, his mouth half closed, unmotivated to hamper or temper the flow of oxygen into his round chest. His breathing carries at least as much expressive force as his words. If he does not divine truth with his body, then his body is simply a conduit for it, a smither or an artisan of truth.

Actors could argue this is the essential quality of their craft, and that his craftsmanship is impeccable; it’s not alchemy, it’s intelligence, concentration, and mastery of body language. But craftsmanship does not ring. It may convince, but it does not reverberate, any more than a tin bell tinkles without sweetly resounding. To make us consistently smell the very living odor of life onscreen requires such an unflagging grip on the discordant business of existing as to render the rest of the film irrelevant to it. Hoffman may be too good for conventional cinema. He too easily reveals its architecture.

But that I am mentioning his performance at the beginning of a discussion of a film as structurally undisciplined as Synecdoche, New York should be cause for concern. I’m not prepared to argue that Hoffman is the strongest element of this film, because I’m not sure that dramatic strength is an appropriate diagnostic tool in this case, but I will say that he reveals truths that Charlie Kaufman overlooks. To pair Hoffman’s gutty ectoplasm with Kaufman’s esoteric preciseness (not to be confused with precision) only underscores Kaufman’s problem of not knowing when a point has been made.

There’s a lot to be admired in Kaufman’s strange and loving dreamscape, in spite of the overwhelming depression it may inspire. As a director, Kaufman is about as gifted as his probable mentors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and of a similar visual bent, but unlike them he never really knows where a camera should be, or what it should be doing. I don’t think he really cares that much; he seems to feel that a camera is a functional piece of equipment, like a light stand or a wing, that achieves a practical end rather than contributes to a film’s mood. And here I am not talking about the lighting or the costumes or the set design, which are fine, but about his framing and sense of visual rhythm. They lack visceral cohesion with the performance Hoffman is giving.

As a writer, Kaufman suffers from terminal inertia. This is the real source of his troubles. It’s clear from the outset of a Kaufman-written film that the writer has a thoroughly inhabited sense of his story, his characters, and his narrative’s quirky, spunky dynamic, and Synecdoche is no different. It may even be clearer here. He slides his way through tart and amusing character development, shuffling along what promises to be a strange and perplexing series of interactions and setpieces toward a climax of rumbling profundity, but about halfway through Synecdoche, the wheels come off and the wagon begins sputtering of its own momentum down the crabgrassy slope of self-important self-doubt, as Kaufman dramatizes and redramatizes the same points, and every possible offshoot point, his story generates.

It is not enough to explore the pathetic life of Hoffman’s theater director Caden Cotard, or the genuinely magnificent conceit of the theater piece he begins to develop from his own pathetic life, but also the sea of pathetic supporting players around him, as well as their iterations within his play, as well as the pathetic state of affairs they are all in, and the patheticness of death, the last curtain, and the patheticness of death as the encroaching end of a pathetic life. Nobody in the film sees a way out of misery, which Kaufman sees as the ultimate truth, since he jettisons the few characters who try. He revels, and repeatedly rerevels, in a sort of bland, effortless depressiveness as, evidently, the only codifier of existential truth.

And this clashes painfully with Hoffman’s performance. Say what you will about the depressing quality imbued in the performance; that is a matter of preference and pain threshold, not acting quality. But it has no place in a film committed to bleakness as a truthful outlook. It’s a question of sieve-like reception versus re-re-reenforced assertion. They blend like oil and water in the subconscious, refusing to gel, like things do in a great film, into a colossal, unified statement of purpose and intention.

As cinematic failures go, Synecdoche is no crime. It’s enormously ambitious and, in spite of the obvious indifference to convention, eager to impress. It doesn’t hate us or think we’re stupid, and it does have moments and whole scenes of low-key comic enlightenment. But Kaufman behaves like the friend of a friend you met at the bar who had a few confidence-building scotches and became oblivious to the fact that his stories have grown quite boring. Like the drunk, Kaufman is so intent on making sure you got his point that he leaves you with nothing to think of for yourself.

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