It's a hallowed ritual of film culture. An artist makes a movie that is so labyrinthine and obscure, such a road map of blind alleys, such a turgid challenge to sit through that it sends most people skulking out of the theater — except, that is, for a cadre of eggheads who hail the work as a visionary achievement.
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
This is an unsurprising statement, which I first noticed on Roger Ebert's blog posting in defense of Synecdoche, New York. Unsurprising because, even though I loved the movie, it was very obvious that this one would be controversial--inevitably intelligent film-goers will disagree. Of course, not so intelligent film goers will disagree as well--Ben Lyons gave it a "Skip it," but Ben Mankiewicz did as well.
As a member of this "cadre of eggheads," I feel compelled to defend the movie. First off, the supporters seem to be winning: Synecdoche has a 65% rating on the Tomatometer. Yes, that is ripe, but not by much. I mean, it's not a big, fat, juicy hot house tomato waiting to be sliced up and served up in a succulent BLT. No, that's a mealy, wrinkled little guy on its last legs, maybe good enough to be chopped up and thrown into a salad and drenched in ranch dressing, or pureed into a soup. If it were a banana, you would just give it an extra week and make banana bread out of it.
Stinking up the tomato more than anybody else has got to be Rex Reed in a review titled, "Could Synecdoche, New York Be the Worst Movie Ever? Yes!". I don't know of any other critic who would agree with Reed's contention that Synecdoche is the worst movie ever made, but I suspect many will agree with mine that Reed's review is one of the worst of the year. His opinion is both worthless and worth quoting at length:
[J]ust when you think it’s safe to go back to the movies, the plunger sucks up something from a clogged drain like the unspeakable, unpronounceable Synecdoche, New York, and you’re forced to take back every prematurely made prophecy about “the worst movie ever made.” Because no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity.
Charlie Kaufman. Oy vay. I have hated every incomprehensible bucket of pretentious, idiot swill ever written by this cinematic drawbridge troll. But nothing that has belched forth from his word processor so far—not the abominable Being John Malkovich, the asinine Adaptation (Meryl Streep even worse than in Mamma Mia!), the artery-clogging Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Chuck Barris from “The Gong Show” a secret operative for the C.I.A.?), not even the jabberwocky of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind—prepared me for a bottom feeder like Synecdoche, New York. It is extremely doubtful that you will sit through all two-hours-plus of this obnoxious drivel—in fact, the fool producers who actually put up the money to finance it owe you a prize if you do—but even if Hollywood bought the myth of Charlie Kaufman, the latest Hollywood example of “the emperor’s new clothes,” as a writer … whatever did he do to convince sane people he could be a director, too? His directorial feature debut reminds me of the spiteful, neurotic brat kicked out of school for failing recess who gets even by throwing himself in front of a speeding school bus.
Reed, unfortunately, reveals little more than his own poor judgment. The "abominable" Being John Malkovich and the "asinine" Adaptation? Sorry, Rex, but your opinion of Kaufmann is a bit too rotten for this tomato.
But as I said, there are a variety of opinions on this one, although none quite so low as Reed's. Here is a sampling of the rest:
Roger Ebert: "I think you have to see Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" twice. I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film and that I had not mastered it. The second time because I needed to. The third time because I will want to. It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely . . . [I]t's not that you have to return to understand it. It's that you have to return to realize how fine it really is. The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman."
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: "It sounds like a bummer, and for a lot of folks, it'll be a bummer. I found it bracing, and genuinely in touch with the sweet chaos and ache of life."
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer: "The film ends in an abyss of total despair over the inevitability of death. What happens in between is often unclear, but what I do understand is the possibility that some viewers will consider the film the worst they have ever seen, while others will judge it to be one of the best of the current crop of attractions. I find myself somewhere in the middle, impressed by its originality, but depressed by its lack of coherence and narrative flow."
Not to forget a couple of shameless plugs . . .
Scott Johnson, StopBenLyons.com: "In the hands of another writer or director this material could easily descend into an annoying mess of cinematic excess littered with clever scenes, random oddities, sound and fury. But this does not feel like a tired old retread by somebody who is remaking the same story over and over--although a fear of doing this is one of the subjects of the movie. No, this is a deeper, even more complex, look at the same themes Kaufman has looked at in the past and it succeeds brilliantly."
Erik Childress, eFilmCritic.com (and friend of this site): "One doppelganger too many and you may have already checked out of Synecdoche for good, but step away from the ledge for a moment and you'll recognize that apart from the everyday darkness and despair there is at its heart a quirky human comedy and a truly beautiful love story lurking out there for everyone to digest."
James Berardinelli, ReelViews: "[I]t will come as no surprise that "weird" is an apt descriptor for Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut. But "wonderful?" Not really. This is the kind of maddening, overstuffed, overambitious, self-indulgent motion picture that will divide critics and viewers (those few who see it). However, while there are times when this film could be considered strangely compelling, it's mostly an overlong, pretentious bore. Kaufman is clearly striving for greatness - "art" at the expense of all else, including logic - but he falls short by a considerable margin. Just because a movie is ambitious and challenging doesn't mean it can't also be tedious and at times unbearable."
Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Writer/director Charlie Kaufman constructs a world seemingly worth exploring, then callously goes about destroying it. And even as coherence goes up in smoke, one is made to sit, watch and absorb its decaying atmosphere . . . By the time [Caden] figures a few things out, it's too late. For us and for him. As external reality slips away in Synecdoche, so does our interest and our patience. "
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: "The movie fails as a piece of entertainment. It fails by even the most indulgent standard. After a promising 45 minutes to an hour, the story derails. Some glimmers of brilliance remain, and they're worth savoring, but mostly Kaufman just spins his wheels in the second half. He repeats the same kinds of scenes over and over until watching the film becomes in itself an existential trial. I don't know if this is praise or criticism, but I've had entire months go by faster than the second hour of this movie."