Update Dec-03: I said that this movie made me think Charlie Kaufman was a very unhappy man, but, as discussed in the comments, a friend of mine pointed out that this project started out with Kaufman trying to make a horror film for Spike Jonze. Somehow, this is what he ended up with. I guess it's just a more existential kind of horror. Oh, that Charlie! :) On the bright side, I guess this movie wasn't meant to represent his complete worldview, so he's not as sad as I thought. Yay! :)
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At its worst, Synecdoche, New York is to Charlie Kaufman what Once Upon a Time in Mexico was to Robert Rodriguez. It seems like he had free rein to do whatever he wanted, and so he tossed in everything that came to mind, including the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the basement sink, and the pipes they're connected to. Fortunately, whereas the Rodriguez film was terrible, Kaufman's film is merely flawed and a bit directionless; it still has plenty to offer.
The film starts out in the guise of a domestic drama, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as an unhappily married couple living in Schenectady, New York. This initial normality accentuates the surrealness that creeps in slowly but surely, really getting going with a brilliant scene involving a burning house. The film tries to be about art, disease, parenting, sex, death, and life. It tries to be about everything.
I skimmed various reviews after watching the movie, and here's something one reviewer wrote: "But Synecdoche, New York doesn't work as it's supposed to. It sets out to encompass all of what makes us human but only finds room for what makes us unhappy." I disagree with that statement on two fronts: (1) There is at least one fleeting moment of something approaching happiness toward the end, and (2) I get the sense that maybe Charlie Kaufman thinks life does generally make us unhappy. I don't think Charlie Kaufman is a very happy man.
Synecdoche, New York connected with me quite a bit. I'm unfortunately not comfortable telling you which parts connected with me because that would be too personal; it would be more than I'm willing to reveal on a public website. Ironically, telling you that is the best I can do to explain how much it connected with me. I'm willing to bet that some parts of it, perhaps different parts, will connect with you as well. We're always playing various roles in our lives. This is a film about a theater director who is always telling other people about their roles, but he's never quite sure what his own roles should be.
Reviews for this movie have been rather mixed. Most of the complaints were that it's self-indulgent, which I agree with. Many others found it boring; the friend I watched it with yawned loudly two-thirds of the way through. I personally found it enthralling until maybe the last five minutes; it reaches a touching peak that had me teary-eyed, but then it kind of fades out disappointingly. Now that I'm typing this, though, I wonder if that was intentional, reflecting the the fact that when our lives end, it rarely comes in an exciting way. The film (or play) as life: It's perhaps the world's oldest synecdoche.
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P.S.: (Minor Spoilers) There's a character called Hazel who I thought was being played by Emily Watson. Then halfway through the film a new character shows up, an actress called Tammy playing the part of Hazel. (Meanwhile, Hazel had grown older and was played in old lady makeup.) Tammy looks a lot like Emily Watson. I was confused. I thought, is that Helena Bonham Carter? I had no idea Helena Bonham Carter and Emily Watson looked so much alike! But then it becomes clear that Tammy really was being played by Emily Watson. So then I thought maybe Emily Watson was actually playing both roles, Hazel and Tammy, but I wasn't sure, because they did look a bit different... but maybe it was just the makeup?
Finally, when I got home and looked it up on IMDb, I was surprised to find that, while Tammy was played by Emily Watson, Hazel was played by Samantha Morton this whole time! I had no idea Samantha Morton and Emily Watson looked so much alike! It didn't help that they were intentionally made up to look similar. Still, in the plot of the film itself, characters confuse each for the other, so it seems very appropriate that I as an audience member of the film confused them as well. The film represents life represents the film. Synecdoche!