It's funny. When Paul Thomas Anderson's breakthrough film Boogie Nights came out, everybody loved it – except me. When Magnolia came out, everybody loved it even more – except me. And then when Punch-Drunk Love came out, everybody ignored it – except me, who loved it.
My relationship to the output of Charlie Kaufman is similar. Being John Malkovich? Didn't do much for me. Adaptation? I was slightly amused. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? I was not really moved. All three films, written by Kaufman, earned a great deal of critical praise and became cult favorites. Now, for some reason, Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is being slagged off – or at least shrugged off – by critics and fans alike. And yet, even though I freely admit that I didn't understand all of it (no big surprise with Kaufman), I liked it much more than I thought I would.
I can understand the naysayers: for a debut, Kaufman's surrealist roller coaster of a film is outrageously ambitious, and it would be easy to say that he's bitten off more than he can chew.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a gloomy theater director whose life is stuck in fast-forward – literally – as he ping-pongs through his complicated relationships with women and his various physical ailments while staging a literally city-sized theatrical production that, in its overreaching scope, probably intentionally mirrors the film itself. That's the easiest way I can wrap up the plot, which eventually involves actors playing other actors, sets within sets, and the usual goofy Kaufman non sequiturs, e.g., a house that is eternally on fire, which smacks of the forced zaniness of Malkovich's 7½ floor.
On that note – or should I say half-note – Synecdoche could be called Kaufman's 8½ – a self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical study of an artist struggling with life, death, love, sex, and the creative process. The finer details may have mostly gone over my head, but there is an emotional truth to the film that I found at times very touching.
It doesn't hurt that Kaufman has cast nearly every great screen actress working today: Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams. Whew! The guy must have the same jones for pixie-faced actresses that I do. Their presence adds much warmth to the film. It wouldn't be nearly as effective without them. And having Watson play Morton is possibly Kaufman's most genius move of all time.
Otherwise, if critics deride Kaufman's directorial style as lacking the visual aplomb of his usual collaborators Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, it's not something that I noticed. This film is definitely worth seeing for Kaufman fans who are up for the adventure. Others may find it baffling and pretentious. As someone who neither worships nor loathes Kaufman's work, I found Synecdoche, New York a unique, heartfelt, and certainly unpredictable moviegoing experience.