Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York (pronounced see-neck-dah-key) is the latest work from visionary writer and Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman, who created Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others. While Kaufman has an impressive list of writing credits to his name, this is his first effort as a director. The result isn’t disappointing, but it’s a little confusing.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a small time theater director who has incredibly bad luck. The name Cotard, by the way, is most likely a reference to a rare nueropsychiatric disorder in which a person believes that he is dead, or doesn’t exist. This is constantly hinted at throughout the movie. Caden has a wife, Adele (played by Catherine Keener who has not once disappointed me with a performance), and a young daughter. It’s a horribly dysfunctional marriage, with hints of lesbian love affairs (with an odd character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who got lost in her role–not in a good way). Adele takes her daughter, and leaves Caden for her art show in Berlin, leaving him all alone. He then is given a MacArthur Genius Grant and attempts to create a new play that’s powerful and true. The entire time, he’s sick with one weird affliction after the next: seizures, pustules, tremors, bleeding gums, losing the ability to cry, salivate, swallow.
With his wife gone, Caden starts exploring relationships with other women. This leads to an affair with his eventual assistant Hazel (played by Samantha Morton) who lives in a house that’s been on fire since before she bought it, a short marriage to his leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams) which produces another daughter, and another leading lady Tammy (played by Emily Watson) who plays Hazel in Caden’s new play. It gets very confusing as the movie goes on, as Caden attempts to make a life-size replica of New York in an enormous warehouse. Actors become actors playing actors, playing actors, playing actors.
There are some very touching, hilarious and poignant moments in Synedoche. The acting is tremendous. This is one of the most talented ensemble casts of any movie this year. Kaufman’s direction is incredibly ambitious, and is much better than you’d expect for a freshman effort. You’d think he’d been in the director’s chair for years. His style is distinctive and beautiful. It’s useless to list all of the players by name when it seems they were all equally as driven and satisfying in their roles (save Leigh, and I’m not sure who’s at fault there).
As far as entertainment goes, I definitely wasn’t bored during the lengthy two hours and three minutes. The one major issues that plagues the film is that Kaufman brings up and flutters around scores of interesting ideas, without landing on any one of them to fully develop them. For a while, the film seems to be about death, and the beauty of it. Then it’s about the sadness of death. Then it’s about unrequited love. Now is it about an unreliable narrator? Then it’s about… The entire two hours, Kaufman pitches concept after concept at the audience, and before I had a chance to even begin to wrap my mind around it, the movie had moved on. Perhaps this problem would be solved with a repeat viewing, but mostly it seems like there’s simply too much crammed in here. Kaufman could have written several movies with so much material.
Extremely dark, and requiring intense amounts of concentration, Synecdoche, New York is not for your average movie-goer. It has it’s flaws, but if you make the effort, Kaufman can take you into an overwhelming world of creative expression.