Status: In limited release (opened 10/24/08)
Directed By: Charlie Kaufman
Written By: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener
My favorite college professor, who taught computer science theory and mathematical combinatorics, would occasionally say in response to a suggestion from a student in his class, “Anything you can do, I can do meta.” I almost feel like this could serve as the movie poster tagline for Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. His main character, stage director Caden Cotard, an enchantingly thought-provoking portrayal from the always-excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, comes to a crossroads in his life and endeavors to write and direct an exceedingly ambitious play, staged on a massive set of New York in a warehouse in New York (and yes, the set does have the warehouse in it… which has another set in it, also with a warehouse…). The play, as its production draws on (for nearly 20 years), comes to be a reenactment of his life, and his life comes to become a reflection of what’s going on in the play. If this sounds a bit confusing, it is. If it sounds a little pretentious, it is that as well. But it’s thoroughly brilliant, although it will surely prove to be somewhat inaccessible to matinee audiences.
The word “synecdoche” refers to a whole relating to its parts, or the parts relating to a whole. This is what is reflected by the play within the movie, certainly, but it also describes Caden Cotard’s life, not to mention that it sounds like Schenectady, which is where he happens to come from (and where the opening of the movie takes place). It’s a double entendre of a title for a movie that relishes in double entendres and synecdoche and symbolism and countless other literary devices that Kaufman’s high school English teachers are undoubtedly very proud to seem him employ to such great effect. Kaufman revisits several of his favorite themes here, combining them and expanding upon them in new ways that could only be undertaken by a writer given free reign to finally direct his own work: stagnating relationships and fits of jealousy, as in Being John Malkovich; obsessive feelings of sexual inadequacy and dysfunction, as in Adaptation.; surreal forays into the subconcious, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Saying anything more about what this film entails would be to perform a disservice to any potential audience. It’s one of those “you just have to see it” movies, and I resist adding “to get it” onto the end of that statement because I’m not quite sure that I do. I think that, given a couple more viewings, I’d be able to explore what I believe to be the dominant ideas being presented here, because it’s that kind of film—it not only lends itself to repeat viewings, it virtually requires it.
Hoffman’s brilliant performance is as good as any he’s given, showing a tortured man struggling to make sense of his life over a 20-year span and through several relationships. His supporting cast is equally as great, from Catherine Keener, who plays his wife at the start of the film, to Michelle Williams, who plays the star of his plays who he inevitably falls into a relationship with. These are overshadowed, though, by a career-defining performance from Samantha Morton (probably most recognizable as the female pre-cog from Minority Report, though here she has flowing red hair). Morton plays Hazel, the box office worker at the theater where Caden is directing Death of a Salesman as the movie opens. She also plays at least 3 other roles, their identities not totally defined, although at least one of them is also Hazel, I think. Morton is remarkably bold in her portrayals; I’m particularly impressed, visually speaking, by a sex scene with Hoffman showing a slightly unflattering angle, but also by the range of character depictions she goes through, not only as her primary character’s personality changes over the years but also as the other “versions” of Hazel, too.
To say that most of this film is abstract is an understatement. The majority of it is not to be taken literally, although it is telling a story that is intended to cut to the core of human existence in the way only surrealist work can. Jon Brion‘s hauntingly ambient score punctuates the mood perfectly, and Hoffman’s embodiment of Caden Cotard is enchanting, particularly as the playwright ages before our eyes, and continues to lose touch with reality and his various relationships.
As I mentioned, it’s a bit pretentious, but it knows it. Kaufman makes fun of pretentious art, in fact: Keener’s character is a painter whose canvases are the size of postage stamps, and at her much-heralded showings the patrons wander around the gallery wearing glasses that appear to have miniature binoculars attached to the lenses. It’s one of the best visual gags in a movie that’s full of visual ploys, and yet I’m confident that I can’t ruin it by desribing it, so well does it play on screen.
A brief footnote, about why I feel this movie qualifies as “great”: it is one that takes some effort to appreciate, in the way all great art does. When I began writing this review, I gave it 3 stars, believing it to have been well executed and thoroughly interesting, but a bit too abstract and confusing to elevate it into the realm of significant cinematic accomplishments. Through the process of organizing my thoughts on it and reflecting on my own film-going experience with it, however, I’ve come to appreciate it on a deeper level; I’ve also thoroughly convinced myself that I will only proceed to find more appreciation for this film the more times I view it. That’s the reason I write these reviews in the first place: to think about and discuss movies in more depth than you would engage in on the car ride home from the theater, with the hopes that this leads to more appreciation, better enjoyment, and a fuller understanding of the art of film as a result. Synecdoche, New York is an epitomizing example of just that, so to call it anything other than great (and to give it anything less than 4 stars, my highest rating) I feel would be intellectually dishonest. It’s a film I’d describe as “challenging,” but like most I would apply that term to (e.g., There Will Be Blood), I feel that it is a challenge well worth undertaking.