Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste, and in this case, that taste may be too much for most viewers. This isn’t an easily accessible film—even for those of us that enjoy esoteric think-pieces. The confusing jumbling of meaning and imagery requires a few viewings to “appreciate.” Is it a bad movie? No, but it certainly isn’t one that most people are going to want to slog through for what turns out to be a fairly pedestrian message.
A man crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary. (Synopsis by Starburns Industries)
What we have here is an introspective take on “what it is” to be a modern man in the current times. In ways that parallel the fearful rhetoric of our presidential contenders, this is a study on all the ways man has slipped from his perch at the top. There is little build up to explain how Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has come to the situation where everything looks and sounds the same, to where the banality of his various existence is soul-crushing. These are details that don’t matter, as the real question here is how he can reclaim his rightful place at the top of the food chain.
The glimmer of hope he finds comes in the form of a young, unfettered girl Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he sees differently–at least for a few moments. She is something to conquest, something to make him alive again. Unsurprisingly, this anonymous solution does not actually solve his dilemma. He is left largely in the same position he starts in, while providing a solution for Lisa who is struggling with her own inadequacies. This symbolic exhibition of man’s realization that he is not alone at the top of the pyramid anymore is the real message of the movie, despite the meandering route it takes to get there.
The other various symbolic sub-lessons all lead back to this main theme that Michael is little more than a robot going through the motions of his life, that his happy family at home is merely a placeholder for the things he “should” be, that his job is a façade that he has created without any real purpose. These are all the questions of modern men that have found themselves on the receiving end of being knocked down by their perceived enemies in equality and political correctness. This counterpoint to the “Wolf of Wall Street” types is not presented as strongly as it is implied, but it is still there to be examined.
The real question then becomes, do you want to sit through an hour and a half of puppet animation, including a fairly graphic puppet sex scene, just to get the message that the world is moving on from a male-centric world view? Probably not. Kaufman is in the business of making art and this is best described as such. It is intended to be thought-provoking and deeply meaningful. For most people that means inaccessible and boring, and those people do have a point. Credit to Kaufman, who knew exactly when to cut this film off before it became too artsy even for the distinguished film snobs that like this kind of stuff. This isn’t a film to be entertained by, as much as one to be discussed among peers while sipping wine and parsing out the symbolic details.
No matter how you approach it, this is a tough sell. This is the type of film you are going to have to watch two or three times to capture all its meaning. That may test the patience of even the most generous film critic. It’s not a bad film, but it probably isn’t for you.
See it / Rent it / Skip it: Rent it. That way you can fast forward past the weird puppet sex. Who would have thought someone would top “Team America World Police?” (NSFW link)
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Run time 1 hour and 30 min.