I didn’t get it. I was one of those Guardian readers for whom this really wasn’t. I understand the praise which has been lavished on it – it’s written by Charlie (‘Being John Malkovich’/’Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’) Kaufman after all, but this came across to me as a self-indulgent piece of clap trap. It’s not without its merits – the central character is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best male film leads of this generation, and he presents a credible everyman, dragged down by life’s futility and an inability in middle age to renew his joi de vivre. The film initially loosely parallels his character’s staging of Death of a Salesman – what has he achieved with his life, other than chronic illness, hypochondria and a failed relationship? That his wife (Catherine Keener) in turn refuses to support him in his greatest (yet least inspirational) hour should open up an interesting juxtaposition of play and film, but her sudden departure instead fires the film off into surrealism and directorial flights of fancy about the nature of time, life and death. I won’t say it isn’t interesting or occasionally funny, it’s too smart for that, but it is horribly self-indulgent at the same time.
Ultimately I have no idea what this film was about or why I watched it, and it’s left me feeling cold and somewhat annoyed. That despite some wonderful David Lynchian elements like Samantha Morton’s burning house, and indeed all of Hoffman’s strange relationships and the way they bounce forward and backward through time, when he does not. There’s a point sadly however where this stops being cute and intriguing and just becomes annoying, particularly when Hoffman stages the biggest play of all time – that of his life, and has actors initially shadowing, then mirroring, then replacing him in his own life. What Kaufman’s trying to say here isn’t clear, and it takes a very long time and gets very hallucinatory indeed for him to milk whatever the point is. For me it’s a waste of at least the last hour, with increasing doom, gloom, unclear symbolism and it constantly reminded me of ‘The Science of Sleep’ by Kaufman collaborator Michel Gondry. I couldn’t fathom (or enjoy) that film’s dreamy mindscape either, both writing/directing efforts similarly unconstrained by the otherwise restraining influence of collaborators. This one’s for Kaufman purists only, although Peter Bradshaw’s argument in the Guardian is probably right: you’ll think it either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration. I was left feeling that someone had forcibly shoved an acid tab into my head. 4/10 (but only because I gave 3/10 to the execrable Tormented which probably did deserve 1/10)