One of my favorite films is Adaptation. In my opinion, it’s the best Charlie Kaufman penned film. It’s definitely the one film I would recommend if you want to understand the whole Kaufman ethos. And script wise, it’s one of his “less difficult” films, which is ironic being that it’s about the struggle to write a story were nothing changes, nothing happens, and characters don’t reach resolution. “It’s that sprawling New Yorker shit” as the Kaufman character played by Nicholas Cage says in a scene to his agent. But even with all it’s meta weirdness and existential despair, the film manages to tell a story even if there really isn’t a story there.
I’m using Adaptation as a starting point for this totally non authoritative review, because 1) If you didn’t enjoy that movie, you will probably not enjoy Synecdoche, NY and 2) If you haven’t seen any Charlie Kaufman penned film you’ll go bonkers trying to understand this one.
If Adaptation is Kaufman’s The Will to Power, Synecdoche NY is his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Here we see all the themes played out on an epic scale, literally and figuratively. The finding meaning in the meaningless, the anti-climatic and anti-cathartic life, the existential despair, the thinking about thinking, etc. To give a brief overview about “the plot”, the main character Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater director, is married to a painter, and has a daughter. His life is in shambles. He has various weird health problems. At one point in the film, he decides to make something “pure and brutally honest” and ends up using a huge abandoned warehouse were he mocks up his life, literally. He hires an actor to play himself, and that actor hires another actor. It gets so weird you can’t really tell what’s part of the play and what’s part of his real life. Even the character can’t really tell. It’s like one those incomprehensible dreams you have after taking a short nap.
When this film came out it had mixed reviews. One of the biggest criticism is that it’s incomprehensible for the sake of being incomprehensible. I would say that could be a valid critique, but being familiar with Kaufman films, I’d say that’s part of the point. Depending on your life philosophy, you either find meaning in life or give meaning to life, and I guess that’s what I got out of this film. Which is not to say that I agree entirely with the tag of “incomprehensible and difficult”, there are things “to get” if you look hard enough, but finding something “to get” in this film is the wrong frame of reference.
To come back to the Adaptation film… Charlie Kaufman realizes in the end after taking the Robert McKee seminar and chatting with him in a bar, that indeed, you can find structure, meaning, and conflict in life. But the “real, brutal, and pure” life is impossible to truly mimic on a screen in a palatable way. You can only catch a part, a sliver, but the not whole.
Way much better reviews, guides, and CliffNotes:
Wikipedia Entry (The motifs section helps a lot)