When 'keeping it meta' goes wrong

"Synecdoche, New York" shows that a metawork can be both infinitely interesting and unwatchably boring at the same time


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With "Synecdoche, New York," Charlie Kaufman must have thought "I liked what I did with 'Adaptation,' but it just wasn't meta enough." And yes, if you're scoring at home, this is an absolutely ludicrous thought. The film went so deep into both the inner psyche of a writer and the formula of cinema that it needed a fake alter ego character to fully explore its vision. But that wasn't enough for Kaufman. That simply made the film a metafilm, one lousy layer of meta.

In his directorial debut, Kaufman rights this supposed wrong by going deeper. In "Synecdoche," playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seeks to validate his career with an exercise in experimental realism in which he sets up a separate world for his ensemble cast of actors to live out the mundane in an attempt to capture the essence of real life as opposed to the inevitable false aura of theatre and acting. Eventually, as Caden gets deeper and deeper into this work, it devolves into an exercise in personal exploration where all the cast members are playing one another and blurring the line further and further between the play and reality, going so far as to get doppelgangers for several of the characters. This untitled play escalates the film from a metafilm (film about acting and theatre) to a metafilm with a metawork (work within a work) to a metafilm exploring the characters' metalives, officially classifying the film as a meta-meta-metafilm, a feat that is downright unheard of in this post-postmodern era.

This isn't necessarily a knock against "Synecdoche." Metaworks that explore their own craft are almost always critical darlings. And why wouldn't they be? Films made about film and novels made about the process of writing are like gold mines for critics. This concept explains why Pitchfork Media gave Okkervil River's "The Stage Names" a hand job. Who needs original love songs (or in Will Sheff's case, murder ballads) when you can have inside indie jokes and backstage songwriting processes. It's why anyone pretends to like Robert Altman's "The Player." Don't get me wrong, the man is an auteur.

But aside from a few one-liners and some phenomenal fake movie pitches, "Synecdoche" was painful. These works are all synonymous with words like "creative" and "insightful." And this is all true with these particular examples/men in an impressively uniformed sense. These are all men at the top of their craft. In essence, if Altman is an auteur then Kaufman is the Altman of screenwriting and Sheff is the Kaufman of songwriting. They are vastly gifted artists who have the ability to go beyond even themselves at times.

Altman, for one, did this for a purpose. He knew his central character (Tim Robbins) was an entirely unlikable scumbag who sucks all life out of the heart of this film. This was a statement: a giant middle finger to the norms of Hollywood. While The Stage Names received generally universal praise, Uncut Magazine described the album and its writing as "a little too knowing for its own good." But the album as a whole, much like "Synecdoche," largely ends up getting too caught up in itself. Outside of two standout tracks, the album cannot exist within its own confines and eventually becomes engulfed. And while these worlds (Sheff's metamusical world in "The Stage Names" and Kaufman's "Synecdoche" meta-world) are layered in a manner that gives you newfound rewards with each new listen or viewing, that requires these worlds to be entertaining enough to revisit and some point past the first visit. And frankly, if I was promised the meaning of life was hiding somewhere in the last half-hour of "Synecdoche," I'm not sure I could do that dance again this week.

The film explores, you guessed it, interesting and insightful motifs of art, life, death, existence and individuality (or lack thereof). It plays with normal boundaries of time, place and reality in a visually interesting manner. While playing with elements of surrealism, its relationships are grounded in enough reality to feel genuine. Hell, it has a Jon Brion score. But the sadsack narcissist Hoffman plays starts to wear about an hour into the two-hour film, and soon after this falls completely off the deep end within his own work and becomes virtually unwatchable, no matter how many pieces of sage wisdom the man spouts. But maybe that's where Kaufman wins. Sheff scored a Pitchfork Top 25 album. Altman scored a huge moral victory against the industry that was both his love and nemesis wrapped in one. And Kaufman realizes that he has a vastly superior knowledge of the human existence than most, and has chosen to hide it in a film that will surely keep it that way.

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