Synecdoche, New York: Another mindfuck-and-a-half by Charlie Kaufman

posted 3/31/09 on 2009: A Blog Odyssey

If you haven’t noticed, Philip Seymour has struck some serious gold in the last few years. He made us scrutinize his every expression to see whether Father Flynn was lying in Doubt, sickening us as the greedy Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and was the one bright spot in the otherwise mediocre Charlie Wilson’s War. Now in Synecdoche, New York — Charlie Kaufman’s first film as director (he wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Being John Malkovich (1999) — he plays the part of an ambitious theater director who sees death coming and wants to leave something of value before he goes.


THE FILM

Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is tired of mediocrity and scared of death, which seems to plague his consciousness at every corner. Every newspaper headline he reads announces another dead celebrity. Every TV program he flips to reminds him of another illness he might contract. Even his own wife Adele (Catherine Keener — who also plays a distant spouse in Hamlet 2) marginalizes him and admits in a marriage counseling session that she . . . well . . . wishes him ill. His only haven seems to be a Schenectady playhouse where he puts on Death of a Salesman. The actors’ performances often disappoint him, but at least they look up to him. Their approval, however, cannot satisfy him; he yearns for artistic greatness.

Yet one thing leads to another, and Adele bolts with their daughter Olive to Berlin, gaining quick success as a painter. Time slips like sand through Caden’s fingers, and his illness and despair inspire him to embark on a new project: purchase a huge New York City warehouse with grant money and stage an epic play about birth, love, death, and everything.

So who do his actors portray? Real people in Caden’s life. He recalls exchanges with them verbatim and places them in the script. The grant he received must have been enormous because Caden builds microcosm of New York City within the warehouse. Before long, he has a warehouse identical but smaller built within that warehouse and people acting as the people in the larger warehouse. His project’s size explodes beyond comprehension and becomes more and more layered. At times, what’s real and what’s theater become confused . . . or maybe just fused.

Caden distances himself from life by watching actors make art of history. He hopes to make sense of things in retrospect but seems unable to finish working out one problem before another one crops up. It becomes unclear whether the project of writing the play, casting actors, and rehearsing will ever end, and if an audience was intended to see the proceedings at all.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Weird screen animation shorts excerpted in the movie itself. Farm animals philosophize with each other and such.
  • Hoffman talks about his character portrayal and Kaufman’s expert direction.
  • A few bloggers discuss the film in a round-table. They open up by talking about how the film was canned at Cannes (lolol) for eliciting the audience’s emotions. Apparently that is a no-no for pretentious top-tier critics. These commentators, however, thought Kaufman’s insistence on making viewers struggle to interpret and understand was a major strength of the viewing experience (and I agree). Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central cited Synecdoche as evidence that Hollywood does produce brilliant films every year, and that auteurism is not just for Europe. Which is encouraging.
  • A making-of featurette in which Kaufman mentions the dream reality of the film, and the cast and crew discuss the difficulty of making the film: the story spans 50 years; shooting occurred on 60+ locations; the detailed make-up took forever; even Kaufman got confused about the subtleties in the script.
  • A British interviewer who seemed not to have done his homework holds a Q&A with Kaufman after a screening. They discuss the writer-director’s movies, his earlier career in writing for TV, and breaking the “rules” of filmmaking (Kaufman believes there are none). It’s neat to get a feel for Kaufman’s sense of humor. You get a sense that he believes in comedy and thinks it’s crucial in film, but as you will see if you watch Synecdoche, his idea of what’s funny is often pretty dark.


HIGHLIGHTS

Kaufman’s slippery handling of time (coupled with the complicated web of relationships) makes Synecdoche a real mindfuck. Years slip by in seconds without the protagonist even realizing, mimicking the brevity of human life. Kaufman’s abrupt cuts in time are unique and jarring — arguably in a good way.

I also loved seeing actors audition for the role of Caden and other people in his life. Synecdoche’s metacinematic techniques were humorous and cleverly done. Turns out it’s not just a movie about a play. It’s a movie about a play about a play about a play and so on.

As always, Hoffman’s acting is spot-on. I can’t think of any actor who could make me believe in Caden’s suffering and paranoia better than Hoffman. As far as I’m concerned, his hot streak is still intact.

Last but not least, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) is a brilliant mock-up of therapists and self-help book writers. Davis’s role is smallish, but she does have one of the movie’s best lines. Adele says something brutally honest to Caden in a session, so Gravis looks at Caden and asks, “Does that feel terrible? OK, good,” after which Kaufman cuts to a different scene to sharpen the blow.


LOWLIGHTS

Synecdoche is not light entertainment or a passive experience; it pressures you to participate by reflecting on your own life. Therefore, if you’re looking for charming, escapist fare at the end of a tough day of school, work, or whatever, you should avoid this like the plague.

And yeah, it’s a bit of a downer. The events kind of jump from one huge tragedy to another with minor victories few and far between.

This film is not FDA-approved and could pose a serious risk of brain activity — or, even worse: contemplation — for fans of Twilight, Nickelback, and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Other side effects include broadening one’s horizons and a lack of enthusiasm for reality television.


VERDICT

Definitely see it if you like Charlie Kaufman’s older work. Hell, see it twice. You can come to grips with what’s happening better the second time. If you’re not familiar with Kaufman but you’re interested in his work, Being John Malkovich may be a better introduction.


STATS

  • Won Best Screenplay at the Austin Film Critics Awards, Best Ensemble Cast at the Gotham Awards, the Independent Spirit and Robert Altman Awards at the Independent Spirit Awards, and the LAFCA Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
  • Nominated for other prizes at Cannes, the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, the Gotham Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Online Film Critics Society Awards, and the Visual Effects Society Awards.
  • Rated 62% on RottenTomatoes.
  • Running time: 124 minutes.
  • Rated R


COMING TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

Part II of the Blockbuster Total Access Saga. And then I dunno. There are a few movies I’m thinking about getting. Just depends on my mood.

Any requests? I’d be happy to consider reviewing any of your suggestions. Try to limit responses to DVD releases from the last six months.