Sunday, December 7, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

There’s a heck of a lot going on in Charlie Kaufman’s latest opus, “Synecdoche, New York,” so much so that even the critics, whom everyone loves to paint as out-of-touch elitists who automatically reward any film too intricate for them to “get,” are sharply divided on the issue. I saw it once and loved it, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t need to see it again.

The plot, insomuch as I could possibly summarize, concerns Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a playwright who receives a MacArthur genius grant after producing a successful version of “Death of a Salesman.” When his wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a critically acclaimed painter, takes their daughter and leaves for Germany, Caden decides to use his grant money to make a grand statement: a play about life itself.

What results is the most epic theater production you’ve ever seen. Cotard leases out a warehouse and slowly creates a miniature version of New York City. His cast grows into the hundreds, possibly thousands, all in effect playing themselves. Cotard wanders city streets and you can never be certain if they are the actual streets or his set until he starts giving notes to people. In one of the more amusing running gags of the film, the actors never can pull off acting naturally; they inject a melodrama into their performances no matter how many times Caden tells them to be ‘normal.’

In classic Kaufman tradition, the lines between reality and the play, between consciousness and dreams, slowly fades until it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, is actually happening. As Caden buries himself deeper in the project, he slowly drives himself mad with the undertaking of it all; soon, he’s hiring actors to play…the other actors, and actors for those actors as well. Sammy (Tom Noonan), who plays Caden’s doppelganger, has followed and studied the playwright for decades, but when he finally collects his notes and dives into the character he is driven to madness. Caden himself can barely hold himself together; what hopes does an actor have? Eventually the lines blur so much that Caden starts to play himself (or play himself playing himself, it’s hard to keep track) under the guidance of a new director. My good friend Wikipedia tells me that Caden’s surname, Cotard, is the name of a psychological condition in which a person believes himself to be dead or dying, which certainly fits with Caden’s fascination with the subject, and of his own mysterious, debilitating illness.

As complex as the film gets, Kaufman sums it up with the title: Synecdoche, a term that denotes a part of something to refer to the whole, or vice-versa. This is Kaufman’s attempt to prove that old Shakespearean line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Every play and every movie is a reflection of life, and this is the (il)logical extreme of art. It seems so simple when it’s written down like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its clear, resonant, darkly funny message, the steps that the film takes towards it are where I get confused. I do not need another viewing to “get” it, but to discover that which was not apparent when I first watched it.

“Synecdoche may not be Charlie Kaufman’s best film, but it is perhaps his greatest. I detest movies like “Donnie Darko,” which receive praise for being deliberately obtuse seemingly because people mistake wheel-spinning, navel-gazing nonsense for depth, but “Synecdoche” really does work. Just as the title suggests, every part of this film serves as a microcosm for the world; it is so dense and layered that it is inevitably sluggish, but I kept on staring in wonder.


  1. I thought the film dragged for 75 minutes or so and even thought about stopping it. It picked up for the next 30 minutes or so, and I spent the last 15 on the edge of my seat. At the final fade to white, I fell slowly back against my couch. My wife asked what I thought. I said it was good. "Like crying good?" I shook my head. "What kind of good?"

    I still don't know.

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