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Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman about an endless and outsized theater production intended to represent the entire world, has been getting mixed reviews. What is curious is about these reviews is that so many of the more positive ones have relied on literary references to praise the film. The Los Angeles Times’s Carina Chocano mentions, for example, Jorge Luis Borges and Jean Baudrillard, as does the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, who adds allusions to Freud, Kafka, and Dostoevsky. Roger Ebert, somewhat more idiosyncratically, compares Kaufman’s film—which is set in contemporary Schecnectady and a futuristic DUMBO—to Suttree, Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 novel about mid-century Knoxville. Something is wrong here.
Kaufman clearly has literary ambitions (synecdoche, for you non-English majors, is a poetic device) so why didn’t he just write a novel? Without Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) or Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to lend his script a visual intelligence, there is no check on Kaufman’s longstanding novelistic proclivities. Digression, his favorite tool, is inherently anti-cinematic, which may be why, to describe the nature of Synecdoche, New York, so many critics have made recourse to the work of other writers rather than to filmmakers. (To his credit, The Onion’s Scott Tobias mentions only surrealist Luis Buñuel, which is a tad generous.)
Synecdoche, New York begins promisingly as a conventional domestic drama with subversive formal elements whittling at its edges (e.g. animated versions of the characters playing on the family’s television set). But by the half-hour mark, a familiar siege of clever conceits has colonized and subjugated the remaining trace elements of realism. Kaufman’s latest postmodern puzzle is what the aforementioned Baudrillard would have called a simulacra, a big-budget, star-studded imitation of a real movie.—Benjamin Strong