(On DVD, February 2018) I have a long list of annoyances when it comes to movies, and at first glance Synecdoche, New York seems to hit an impressive number of them. It’s consciously made to annoy viewers, to revel in their darkest fears, to rush to the worst ending imaginable, to become self-involved in its own inscrutable metafictional games, to screw with expectations for no reasons. Coming from the reliably twisted mind of writer/director Charlie Kaufman, this is a film that jumps in-between high concept, dream sequences, a background apocalypse, characters taking each other’s roles, intense symbolism and decades of events compressed in barely more than two hours. It barely explains what it’s doing, leaving viewers to ponder and search for fascinating readings about the film’s means and meanings. Heck, the lead character may not even be himself. I have been infuriated by tamer movies. Adding to the potential disaster, the DVD version of the film does not have English subtitles, making my life much harder as I was watching the film in less-than-ideal audio circumstances. (I eventually found and read a copy of the script to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important, and was relieved to find that I hadn’t.) But, for lack of a better expression, Synecdoche, New York worked its magic over me. The relentless gloom of the film quickly becomes a comedy, and once you accept that the film will make more emotional sense than a purely narrative one, it becomes a curiously enjoyable experience. The metafictional book-reading scene set aboard a plane flight had me laughing, which is not something I would have anticipated from a movie that features a greatest hits selection of every single fear that adults can have, from being estranged from loved ones, to progressive illness, to being made completely redundant, to not being forgiven, to surviving the end of the world, and so on. Gloriously ambitious, Synecdoche, New York is about everything. Phillip Seymour Hoffman turns in one of his great performances as the tortured hero, ably supported by cast as varied as Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan and Dianne Weist. Adding to the strangeness, Samantha Morton and Emily Watson are rather eye-catching here, which is really weird given that I usually don’t rank them particularly high on my own list of sex-symbol actresses. Ultimately, Synecdoche, New York’s unrepentant refusal to be ordinary is what sets it apart. I’ll leave viewers to decide if it’s best seen cold or not (this is not a movie that can be spoiled), but any second viewing should be done after gorging oneself with various commentaries, interpretations and lengthy analyses of the film. It’s incredibly rich material for discussion, and I’m as surprised as anyone to like the film as much as I did.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) on the one hand, Anomalisa is a powerful, unique, unusually intimate portrait of a man almost pathologically incapable of connecting to anyone else. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the film and feel little but loathing for him. The first surprise is that the film, from Charlie Kaufman’s eccentric mind, is a work of stop-motion: Conventional wisdom has it that animated film usually portray something that would be impossible to film in real life, but here Anomalisa takes us with few shortcuts through the description of a businessman landing at an airport, taking a taxi to his hotel, checking in, having a bad date with an ex-girlfriend, meeting someone else, and having sex in a hotel room. It takes roughly an hour to get to this point, giving you an idea of the slow rhythm of the film and the care it takes at describing even the most mundane of activities. The stop motion heightens the immersion, deliberately re-creating the tiny gestures and interaction of life in a way that would be invisible in a low-budget film. While there is an obvious fantasy sequence later on, much of Anomalisa is spent in the crevices of life that other movies avoid. It also allows for artistic effects, such as giving the same face and voice to all other characters except for the protagonist and the woman who catches his attention. To its credit, Anomalisa isn’t afraid to portray its main character as reprehensible. Not only is he unable to connect (which is tragic in itself), he’s an adulterer and someone fundamentally incapable of ever being happy. Don’t be surprised to hate the guy by the end of the film. On the other hand, isn’t this Anomalisa’s point? Well, who knows: the surprising thing about small-scale dramas as Anomalisa is that they invite more interpretation than much-bigger genre spectacles. Here we get an acutely realistic sex scene between puppets that’s far more affecting than most of 2015’s movies, a deeply flawed protagonist, interesting ways to present internal conflict and a controlled experiment that may just be designed to irritate you. That’s not perfect (and there’s an argument to say that the film loses control toward the end, as it hits the fantasy sequence) but that’s the kind of experience that jaded cinephiles will treasure. Anomalisa isn’t necessarily a film you’ll see twice, but it’s more than worth seeing once.