Of Synecdoche, New York, Roger Ebert said, “Think about it a little and, my god, it’s about you. Whoever you are.” You used to hear this sentiment often on films with characters like Caden Cotard, straight white guys tragically beset with unplaceable ennui and dread and extremely placeable horniness. Characters like this are treated as a sort of human default state, a canvas on which a full picture of humanity can be painted. When the critical establishment looks so much like Caden Cotard, of course their takeaway would be that Synecdoche, New York is a film about humanity at large, about everyone. The film’s ideas about the human condition are, in actuality, quite narrow. This is a movie with a very specific worldview about a very specific kind of person. I didn’t quite hate it. But I’m not included in its “everyone.”
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, to be clear. I’m not upset by the notion of making a film about any one kind of person. What rankles is pretending that such a film speaks to the entirety of humanity. This film didn’t speak to me, even as it toyed with thoughts of gendered performance near the end. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a film for someone else, something I wasn’t meant to be watching at all.
One thing I did like more than a bit about the film is its editing. This was probably the only “meta” aspect of its design that worked for me. The film plays with the purpose of a cut to collapse time by not letting its main character in on the trick. Cuts disguise years-long jumps without Caden seeming aware that any time has passed at all. Our understanding of object permanence means that a film implies the existence of its characters even when they aren’t on screen. Not so here. Caden seems to pop out of being when he’s not in the frame, and pops back in just as suddenly. It’s one of the few page tricks of Kaufman’s that he’s able to translate perfectly to the screen.
It’s unfortunate that I can’t say the same for so much of the rest of the film. While I don’t love all the work of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, they undeniably have a touch as directors that Kaufman simply doesn’t. His compositions are rather blase, rarely serving to heighten the world’s absurdity or even, in its worst moments, so much as illustrate it. Where is the silliness, the surrealism, besides on the page? Kaufman simply shoots his script, letting himself down tremendously.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, is the film’s big bright shining star. There wasn’t a film he acted in where this wasn’t the case. He grants such depth to Caden’s wandering emotional state, knowing exactly when to get capital-B Big and when to shrink away. For a film entirely about artificiality in performance, there’s none to be found here. I think this more than anything else is what keeps the film from completely falling apart. Although I would have been curious to see a version of Synecdoche that went all-in on fakery and obviousness in acting, I appreciate what Hoffman does to ground such a fanciful work in something that feels true.
I can also appreciate what people see in this film that I just don’t. As I said, I don’t think it’s terrible. There’s plenty to like here. But I struggle to get on board with a film that seems, outside of its lead performance, so lifeless and aimless. It has little to say about the human condition that’s of interest to me. What I like about it is in its meager formal invention and its unsurprisingly titanic lead performance. It’s just not the sort of film I like very much, even if I can easily see why others do.