I saw Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, New York the other day, at the Ritz East in Philly. I had some company, too.
The film was a hilariously funny, wildly comedic soiree, all wrapped around a story tinged with a profound melancholy. These feelings, I felt, alternated between the genuine and the overblown. You may have seen this neurotic, gloomy, hypochondrial protagonist before; he's in Kaufman's other films, he's a favorite of Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and assorted others working in New Wave Quirk: a decidedly unlikeable, alienated (and alienating) lead character writ large for the sake of comedy. What "Synecdoche" does well is mix this impossibly self-absorbed and sad man with a surreal universe that seems to confirm every dreary thought and anxiety he's ever had, and delights in kicking him when he's already way, way down. If you're not laughing well before our main character is so sick he has to lube up his eyes to cry, this movie probably isn't for you.
I find the comedy--the dark, bizarre, surreal, uncomfortable, wry, ironic, and various-other-adjectives comedy--to be the real reason to see the film. But that overdone melancholy I was speaking of before is, well, overdone, and while taking something real and blowing it up to huge proportions to convey it in a film you can actually sit through is probably a necessary conceit for cinema (but I digress ...), every moment of poignancy the film conjures is overshadowed by the inevitable joke that follows. Hilarious jokes, mind you, but jokes that completely undercut the drama. It's hard to take any dramatic turn the films makes too seriously when it undermines itself with more comedy; how can the death of these characters you've never vested in register if you're laughing at the absurdity of their death on screen? Kaufman has juggled these ideas well enough in the past: his films have always been funny, but they also told a story with humanity and genuine connection that elevated the movie beyond simple comedy, that worked in concert with the laughs to create true poignancy for characters we cared for. But despite Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance, despite a great cast that effortlessly tackles some truly odd acting duties, and despite a story that is only half-told (and then only mostly-well), the film ultimately just can't figure out how to say whatever it is it wants to say. The story rapidly unravels in a messy and noticeably serious final twenty minutes that simply can't prop up the weight of the world that the film has made.
But that world that the film has constructed was a hell of a lot of fun to visit. Despite its flaws, and despite a story that doesn't make it to the finish line, it's definitely worth seeing. I saw it with an audience that had everyone laughing at different moments, which is a pretty interesting thing to experience; there were a few times when I was laughing entirely on my own.
Building the world is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. What kind of world we build for ourselves. Jim and Cecilia are getting married next month, for god's sake, and Matt and T are not too long after that: the whole world of jobs, careers, eventual families, back to school, progress from all directions. The future is bearing down, my friends, and it has appallingly bad breath. I saw Synecdoche with some friends, but also someone new. I had a good time, I enjoyed talking with her, it seemed to be all laughs and smiles making our way around the block for a drink and a snack before going into the theater. She had wonderful eyes, I remember that, a clear marble blue that never seemed to blink, never looked away, ravenous beautiful eyes that took everything in. The film ended, and in the lobby we decided what to do next ... and she had things to do. Generic, exculpable things. And it was in that moment, when those words hit my ears, I felt the weight of exhaustion that coffee and excitement and optimism had only barely held at bay. Because I knew exactly what those things were, those things that have been there these long 24 years, and my voice quivered for just a second (no one noticed, I think), my eyes closing too long in a protracted blink, a slight sorrowful nod as I instantly knew, yet again: this is how my world is made. Slow polite banter as we walked down the street, my car right, her place left, brief and noncommittal goodbyes, and I walked to my car alone.