Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: October 24, 2008 (limited)
On a personal level, I consider Charlie Kaufman the most talented working screenwriter in Hollywood. I don’t think I am alone in this thought. His resume is one of impressive and envious of anyone in the past however many years you want to use to quantify it. It is one thing to craft a story with intelligent structure and dialogue. It is another thing altogether to create entire universes that have a distinct taste and smell to them. When you sit down to watch a Kaufman scripted film, there is an expected level of chaos and disorder. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind — all of these films have a wildly imaginative subject and scope, which is exactly the reasons we love them so much.
Synecdoche, New York marks Kaufman’s directorial debut and to the general movie-going public it will amount to little more than a confusing movie with a confusing title. Fans of his work will draw pretty much the same conclusion. On one hand it is an almost unapproachably pretentious movie with a title that is difficult to pronounce (‘si-NEK-duh-kee’, by the way). On the other hand it is a movie that sort of transcends explanation. That’s not a movie critic cop-out, it just has many, many layers beyond its face value.
On the surface it is about a theatre director making a play. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has had moderate professional success while everything else in his life seems to be failing on all levels. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) goes to Germany on vacation with their daughter and never returns. He thinks he is dying at every turn, his therapist might be crazier than he is, and his life is chalked full of failed relationships. With his wife Adele, his daughter, a string of female encounters, his body, his feces. He receives a prestigious grant that allows him the financial freedom to create his theatrical masterpiece on the stage. He sets out to gain an understanding of his life and the reasons pieces of it are always failing. The result is a neverending production of his own life, with no audience, that is built to scale in a warehouse in New York with actors and actresses playing everyone he is associated with, including himself, playing out in real time. All the time. For more than twenty years. As with any piece of self reflection, the deeper you dig the more you unearth. Caden’s solution is to sift through the confusion by piling on more. As events happen in his real life, he hires actors to replay the scenarios in voyeuristic fashion so he can observe his own missteps.
Like any other movie born of the Kaufman mind, the perception of reality is tweaked and bent until it is almost broken. Amidst the confusion it is really a story about a man who is afraid of dying without making his mark on the world. It is about a man who wants to overcome his failures, or at least understand how and why they exist, both real and perceived. A lot of writers draw from themselves at some point or another – it makes sense being the subject they are most familiar with — but Kaufman takes the unpopular approach of airing all his insecurities and dysfunctions through his characters for the audience to experience with him. It is not only self-referential but self-depreciating. There is a brutal honesty, almost an indignity, through the lens which we view his reflection. It would come across as pretension if there weren’t pieces of all of us in his view of himself. We all feel the same insecurities; they just manifest themselves differently in the Kaufman universe. Think of it as Woody Allen in an altered state and you’ll be close.
It is easy to become suffocated by the neurosis on display if there weren’t truth in them. Kaufman has a way of cutting so deeply into his subjects that he surpasses gimmickry and enters a level of honesty that others wouldn’t dare approach. I wont even try to claim that I understood everything in the movie. Even with multiple viewings certain parts of it just are what they are, without explanation. And it may be the least accessible film than the previous entries associated with the Kaufman brand but if you can get passed the perceived vanity and allow yourself to be receptive to its message you might end up surprising yourself at just how normal the whole thing ends up being.
And there’s the rub.
*** ½ out of ****