Synecdoche, New York Movie Review

R, 124 min, 2008

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is an astonishing, dizzying, beautiful, melancholy, sardonically amusing, lovely, apocalyptic, powerful, low-key, brilliant, bewildering and inspiring work of staggering genius (Have I used every single superfluous adjective known to man yet? Good). His latest surrealist trip down the rabbit hole of the creative mind is about… well, there’s positively no satisfying way to complete that sentence. A plot description is futile, for there is no plot; such is life.

Let it be said then that on the face of it, the film concerns itself primarily with the precarious existence of one Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a struggling theater director (I discover from Time’s Richard Corliss that his name is an anagram for Acted Candor; the levels never cease!). Caden has a palpably contempt-ridden marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of miniature smeared portraits. There is a 4 year-old daughter named Olive and sessions of marriage counseling with a cheerfully unhelpful therapist named Madeleine (Hope Davis). Caden reads the obituaries every morning; will he find himself? There is an attempt to mount a complex new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the community theater, and an “unusual” choice with the casting. There are flirtations with that “hot,” sexy redheaded box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton). There is the degradation of Caden’s body and death may be imminent; people die everyday, and often they are friends and loved ones.

Caden receives a Genius Grant. Caden wants to make something “true and personal” before shuffling off this mortal coil; after all, what good is a Genius Grant if one can’t live up to the distinction? Caden will cast hundreds of people to play everyone he has ever met, brushed up against, or even remotely interacted with, and then some, in a major theater piece about his entire life; “The world is but a stage and we mere players upon it.” Why does he have to make it so complicated? “That’s what you do,” says the wife. Vast sets are built, apartments constructed; compartments to organize the world around us. Had Miranda July not already employed the title three years ago, this ought to have been called Me and You and Everyone We Know.

There are comings and goings of relationships and feelings; life is full of regrets. Tempus fugit – “time flees.” Your daughter is raised by Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) now, and she’s in Germany, and her diary reads like something from the inner workings of a stranger, and who told her you were homosexual? Tattoos of flowers get infected and wilt. The body withers and sickens; it takes its cue from the mind. There is a pretty blond actress called Claire (Michelle Williams); is she the one? Everyone needs a doppelganger. Pretty, pudding faced Tammy (Emily Watson) is Hazel. Tall, off-putting Sammy (Tom Noonan) follows Caden for 20 years; “research.” He will serve. Dianne Wiest is Millicent, or is it Ellen? Is she a woman? Is she Caden? Kaufman by way of David Lynch. Life is a rehearsal for itself. Everything dies. Illumination comes suddenly.

Charlie Kaufman, who wrote and makes his directorial debut here, has literally made a career of plumbing the depths of human life, using the cerebral and the surreal as his avenue. He has employed some brilliant directors to adapt his ideas (these aren’t screenplays in the “traditional” sense, but rather insightful explorations of the mind) to the screen: Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Now, with perhaps his most “gimmicky” premise, Kaufman has also certainly woven his most emotionally moving tale to date. Here, Kaufman is amazingly assured, working up in the higher echelons of Bergman; his work is existential, “meta”, cerebral, funny and profound (the Big Questions are asked, and when Caden says his play is “about everything,” is it Kaufman talking about this film?).

This could all be self-indulgent on a grand scale, but works splendidly. The film is fiercely original and unique, yet recalls everything from Bergman’s Persona and its Lynchian descendants Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, to Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry.

Hoffman is ideal as the neurotic and overwhelmed theater producer; the one constant in an ever-shifting world. The cast is full of amazing actresses, each playing their role in Caden’s life – but which is which and who only knows? Tom Noonan is profoundly creepy and effective as the imposing force that claims he can play Caden like no other.

Fred Elmes’ camera (Blue Velvet) is this time largely unobtrusive, but observant; his lighting is sometimes stylized and sometimes relatively subtle. Jon Brion’s score (Magnolia) is by turns quirky, odd, beautiful, melancholy. The song “Little Person” is performed by Deanna Storey and written by Kaufman and Brion; remember it come Oscar-time. The film is sad, but not “depressing;” as Ebert says: “No good film is depressing, all bad films are.” The film is heart-warming, but not “pleasant;” reconsider your definition of “entertainment.” The film is funny, but not “hilarious;” odd, but not so “strange.” The film is inspired and inspiring. Two college kids behind me audibly ask, “What the f–k?” every 15 or so minutes starting around the halfway mark, right up to the end credits; here is a film that is thought-provoking, and requiring thought, but it should be a privilege and not a chore. The film gives hints, and evades easy answers. The film is absurdist, and realistic. The film is not just about Caden, or theater, or even about me and you and everyone we know. This is a film about life; this film is life itself. At the end, I felt not only enlightened and moved, but also quite powerfully like I was somehow closer to the human race. It’s a masterpiece; I will see it many times. It is obviously one of 2008′s very best films; possibly “the best.” Head hurts. Sleep now…

Note: Early in the film, the audience gave a chuckle/gasp at an ironic gag – the mistaken belief that someone famous had died…who just did. The film was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. It won 2 Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature and the Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble Cast.


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