I thought I’d add to all the noise in the media this weekend about Kaufman’s new film, Synecdoche, New York, by sharing my script review, which was originally posted on May 2, 2007.
MM’s soul-searching metaphysical Synecdoche, NY, experience:
You can do this review, man. There is no script too difficult, right? You can and WILL find a way to get at the heart and soul and TRUTH of this outrageous epic of Charlie Kaufman. You love Charlie Kaufman. You can figure this out. You can find the truth through the process of writing a review. Okay, just relax. Look at it again.
It’s 152 pages. That’s incredibly long. What does that mean? Is this a burning piece of profound inspiration from a great writer? Or is this a first draft from a guy who’s just putting all of his thoughts down on paper? Or is this a matter of unchecked vanity? Has his fame caught up with him like M. Night Shyamalan’s who thinks his shit doesn’t stink when, in fact, his scripts still have to go through the normal process of rewrites until it’s molded to perfection?
Page 1. He forgot to write FADE IN, which is my favorite part of a script. But that’s okay. That’s not a bad sign. You’ll still find a way to love this. You'll get to the truth of it all. It’s Charlie Kaufman, ya know.
The opening kitchen scene is mundane to the point of being almost boring, which is surprising, disappointing, and yet confidence-building, because you know that there is a master design behind it all. I think this might be just a normal point of entry for everyone into what will be a very crazy story. There’s dual dialogue, which you don’t see often from pro writers. A radio talks about a luncheon in downtown Schnectady that I don’t think we ever see. There’s a subtle undercurrent of standard fare marital unhappiness between Caden and Adele. She talks to some woman on the phone. We see Adele wipe the bottom of their 4-year-old daughter, Olive. There are green smears on the toilet paper. Do we really see that? Ew. Caden isn’t feeling well. He seems distant from his family, lost in his own world. He cares more about his own illnesses, his career, the news he discovers about people dying than he does about the lives of the people right in front of him.
He visits dentists and doctors and they all give him worrying news that he isn’t well, although no one knows exactly what the problem is and they all tell him to keep coming back for more tests. There's a freak accident in a bathroom. A trip to an emergency room. Caden notices people screaming. The doctor’s concerned that there’s a deeper problem in him and asks about his bowel movements. You get the sense that this could be the beginning of the end for Caden. He visits an Opthamologist. He endures an MRI. He’s constantly checking his stools, and we, too, are forced to view the many strange incarnations of Caden's feces. Once, it’s “dark and loose,” later it’s “black” and even “grey.” He pees in a sink. His urine is “amber.” Is there value in showing amber urine and grey poop in film? What can it mean? Is it to get a laugh? Or is it about trying to show us physical manifestations of Caden’s inner turmoil? Or is it about showing poop on film?
He's a director of plays and there’s a girl in the box office who wants to have an affair with him. Her name is Hazel. Later, she sees a run-over dog on the road. She actually goes to look at it more closely. It’s a bloody, gory mess. Yet, it’s barely alive. The head moves. She bends down to pet it and says “You’re not going to make it, baby.” I think perhaps, it's an overt reference to Caden himself. It’s a grotesque moment, is it not? It’s horribly ugly, but it has meaning, doesn't it? Should we condemn Charlie for many other moments like this one in the film where we are forced to view stomach-churning ugliness that has meaning? She takes it in. We later see it sleeping in a box in the corner of her apartment.
Caden takes the phrase “passive protag” to new heights. He does nothing but be so self absorbed about his problems and his illnesses and his play-directing that he neglects everyone around him. He fails to fight for the child that Adele takes away from him. He never makes decisions - he only caves in to pressure. He’ll agree to sleep with certain girls only after they practically throw themselves at him for days on end without a care in the world about the fact that he’s married and trying to be faithful. But he caves in anyway, and when the sex is over, he cries like a baby and ruins the affair. In fact, he does this on more than one occasion. Doesn’t this kind of behavior turn off audiences? Why should they care about this man who is so weak? But this pattern continues – after crying and ruining affairs, he flips emotionally and suddenly commits to the girl of the moment and begs her like a child to take him back, which they won’t do. He’s always fighting for the wrong girl and never once fights for his own daughter. By constructing a character that goes against everything every screenwriting book ever told you to do, has Kaufman done something right? Is it always necessary to love the person you’re watching in a movie? By seeing someone make all the wrong choices and lose those things that are most precious to him, do we not benefit so that we will hopefully make the right choices?
But that is only one aspect of Caden’s arc. We see him plummet into an obsession about his death, about death itself, and we also see him become enveloped by his own fears and paranoia about his health and his feces and the end of his life. The world around him slowly transforms from reality to a world of the absurd where you see people living in burning houses and other strange occurrences like that moment when the Salvation Army Santa spastically clawed at his beard and revealed a tortured blue face and then he gasped for air and died. And as the world transforms into the bizarre like a slow-moving wave, all of the imagery points to only one thing, that Caden finds himself surrounded by death and decay everywhere he turns – people are dying or committing suicide or friends of friends pass away or his own parents pass away and we see many funerals. And like a slow-moving wave, I find myself deeply saddened by it all. Why put an audience through so much sadness? Is the world so happy right now that we have to pay to be reminded of all this gloom? Is it really admirable and praiseworthy for an artist to do nothing more than to be a bit creative about shit and death? It’s not even the fact that it’s sad that bothers me but that it’s just repetitiously chronicled without any redeeming emotional lift in the end. It is like watching a man fall to his death and there’s no hope for any new development except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies. Pre-destination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it’s a bit self-defeating, isn’t it?
Yes, Caden reacts to this and does something about it. We find that he’s a theatre director who had put on a strange play that became a megahit. He’s given a genius grant and he decides that he should write one final play that’s big and true and tough. And he puts his own screwed up life into the story and tries to find truth through that process and put that truth into his art. He has an actor play him and other actors play the women he screwed and there is some whimsical confusion about art imitating life imitating art imitating life.
And none of it satisfies me because it comes across as not redeeming (in the sense of the redemptive power of film art) but as self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, self-promoting, and I really hate to say it, but vain in an even more perverse way than when he literally put himself into in the movie Adaptation. Didn’t he already cover the “creative process” in Adaptation? Why do we have to go through this again? And is this really the best approach to Caden’s story? Instead of him channeling all of his anguish and self absorbed problems into a play, shouldn’t he be actively trying to fix the problems in his life? Isn’t that where we find truth about life in films? When the Greeks put on tragedies, was it always their solution to escape into art and put on more plays? I mean, come on, Charlie. I love you, but tell me - is this really about story and characters and themes or is this about Charlie Kaufman showing the world how brilliant Charlie Kaufman can be? Or is this simply about Charlie Kaufman struggling to be inventive and original and so he finds himself forced to go to peculiar extremes to outdo Charlie Kaufman?
God, ya know, I feel like I’m almost there. I think I’m getting closer to the truth. Yet, I still can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know how to convey this core truth in the review. I just have to keep writing. Let me ask this question - how is it that this story went from real to the bizarre? At some point, in the 120s or 130s, the novelty of the concept wore off and I was just waiting for the ending and the answer to what was really going on, which I never got. I think I have an idea. I think, perhaps, in Kaufman’s mind, Caden is a man already dead, a man living in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis and he’s just trying to make sense of his life, which saddens me all the more, because Caden's view is on the one hand entirely selfish and on the other, when he finally looks outside of himself, he ONLY sees a world that's full of death and ugliness and his solution is to crawl into his artwork.
But you know, even that answer doesn’t fully satisfy me. I have to get to the core truth of this story…
Oh my God...
I see it now.
I know what to write. It’s