Synecdoche, New York Directed by: Charlie Kaufman Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams Time: 2 hrs 4 mins Rating: R
Plot: When suburban theater director Caden Cotard’s life begins to unravel in a very unconventional way, his ambitions to create an original work arise. This is the story of a man whose self-consciousness and self-awareness are constantly playing tug of war. As a result, he attempts to stage a large-scale production of the brutality honest living provides. The lens through which we see his deteriorating world is nuanced by none other than the eccentric Charlie Kaufman.
Who’s It For? People with patience. People who allow directors to present inexplicable realities that merge with reality. If you liked Being John Malkovich, but you weren’t sure what it was about, this is probably the film for you. Kaufman has a talent to make you care about something you may not understand. Those who prefer a linear tale with a Hollywood ending should find any other two-hour excursion.
Expectations: It’s impossible to assume what to expect from Kaufman. Do not go into this film thinking it will shed Eternal Sunshine on your soul. If you’ve never been accused of having an open mind, go see Wall*E again.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotward: Once a beloved character actor, Hoffman has swiftly made the transition to the upper echelon of leading men. His ability to morph into someone else entirely is vividly evident in his encapsulation of Cotard. He looks like a train wreck, and displays all the faults of a would-be-genius superbly. You’re never sure whether he actually deserves sympathy, and it’s Hoffman’s uncanny talent to keep his cards close to his chest that impresses more than anything else.
Samantha Morton as Hazel: We’ve all had that friend who appears to simply be a goofy character who brings light to any dark situation. Morton seemingly portrays a one-sided, likable character. As the film proceeds, however, we see there’s more to Hazel (especially to Cotard) than initially meets the eye, and though her metamorphosis is gradual, the impact of this realization is daunting. Morton is great at quirky, and this role explains why.
Catherine Keener as Adele Lack: Keener’s a rare treat. She’s hardly a young starlet, and yet her career only really started to take off as she gracefully approached middle age. Perhaps this is why she is one of the few Hollywood actresses who can convincingly reveal a female-middle-life crisis. You never like Adele because she hardly addresses the sub-textual weight attached to her evasive dialogue. This role wasn’t a stretch for her, but no one else would have fit the part.
Michelle Williams as Claire Keen: She’s come so far since Dawson’s Creek, and continues to surprise us with her ability to capably portray troubled young women (in that sense, she evokes a young Diane Keaton). Here though, she’s the “too many” in the traditional “one character too many,” phrase most Kaufman films utilize. Though there are moments when you care about her relationship with Cotard, it’s hardly a necessary addition to the multi-layered ensemble.
Talking: It’s odd how comfortable Kaufman is writing dialogue. Though he comes off as a bit of a hermit, he knows how people talk when they’re really not talking about anything at all. His witty scripts say more in their subtext than the surface conversation ever could. That’s why he’s great: he makes his audience think. They have to figure out what’s truly being said, and by blanketing these tiny realities beneath comical one-liner reinforcements, we find his subtle brilliance.
Sights & Sounds: This is where many audience members will undoubtedly get lost. Kaufman likes to lose his viewers, and if he’s guilty of anything, it’s of trying too hard to do this too often. Regardless, it’s an enjoyable mess of curves he throws at us. When Hoffman begins to see himself in commercials promoting deteriorating physical and mental health, you begin to realize why these unconventional tools are necessary parts of Kaufman’s story-telling arsenal. We’re all the stars of our lifestories.
Best Scene: This won’t give too much away. The best scene is the film’s first. When we meet Hoffman’s Cotard, he’s waking up to a hilarious talk-radio program analyzing some else’s shortcomings. As we watch our hero subtly react to what’s being discussed, we begin to get the true essence of what the rest of the film is about.
Ending: Kaufman knows what his audience wants and he hardly ever gives it to them. Leaving a great story open-ended is one of his many strong suits, but this is where Synecdoche trips up. We’ve invested a great deal of grief in watching Cotard’s life continuously unravel, and when even his doppelganger finds he can’t take it anymore, we begin to realize the ending will hardly be a conclusive one.
Questions: Is this a film about Sex? Love? Socially awkward anti-heroes? Did what happen to Cotard's first daughter actually happen? Which characters are real, and which are figments of his imagination? Are they all real? Are we supposed to believe a full-scale recreation of Manhattan can be created in a theater district warehouse? How can a film be so good, and still leave us feeling as empty as Cotard’s life slowly becomes?
Rewatchability: You have to. As with all of Kaufman’s previous efforts, you miss so much in the first viewing, it’s absolutely necessary to bring a notepad to your second, or third. It’s amazing what you realize you’re missing even as you watch it.
OVERALL You are going to be on the fence about this film for days. If you say you loved it immediately after seeing it, there’s something wrong with you. It’s impossible to be that certain that quickly. That’s the thing about a Charlie Kaufman film. He makes us not only look at the characters he’s created, but at ourselves as well. I’m not saying he’s a brilliant psychologist, or the world’s greatest filmmaker. Not at all. But he creates a world in which nothing is trivial, only because everything absolutely is. That’s the question he always asks: What is important, and what isn’t? It’s that simple. It’s his insistence that we’re all egocentrically living our lives, terrified about what will happen to us that we eventually find the meaning in his films. Synecdoche, New York is about a man reexamining his life by employing an ensemble of actors to relive it for him. What he finds is the horrific reality that life flies by so quickly, it’s too late to realize what has made it great. In essence, if you’re able to relax, you’re not living it at all.
Final Score: 7/10