Written & directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Diane Weist, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Tom Noonan
Synecdoche, New York is the latest film written by genius screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. However, thanks to Spike Jonze (who collaborated with Kaufman on Adaptation and Being John Malkovich) being busy with his next film, Kaufman slips into the director’s chair for the very first time. He has stated in the past that he was interested in directing, but it’s no surprise that the neurotic Kaufman had to be kinda forced into making the decision to do so. It’s understandably nerve wracking going into this film, worrying if the talented writer can bring his words to life as well as Jonze and Gondry did. Oh, he can, and he does.
The film is difficult to describe so I’ll just give a very general synopsis. Synecdoche follows a new york theater director named Caden Cotard, played by master thespian Phillip Seymour Hoffman, from roughly age 40-90 as he tries to create his masterpiece in a giant warehouse in New York. His central aim is to tackle mortality, but he wants his work to encompass everything it can. As the years pass, his production gets more and more out of hand, with hundreds of hired actors and incredibly elaborate sets. Eventually he builds a scale model of New York. Of course, for the scale New York to be accurate it must incorporate the warehouse, and inside that warehouse needs to be another scaled version of the city. So we get somewhat of a Russian doll effect except, oddly enough, each New York seems to be the same size. This is the type of “dream logic” you’ll need to be prepared for in Synecdoche, New York.
A common complaint I’m hearing is confusion over unrealistic things in the movie. For example the scaled New Yorks which all are the same size or the more infamously mentioned burning house. Hazel, played by Samantha Morton, purchases a house while it’s on fire. She mentions her concern of the fire once to her realtor, but that’s all. For the remainder of the film, which works out to about 40 years within it, the fire remains, constant, but the house never burns down. That this is something people are whining about irritates me. It seems that most moviegoers are unwilling to think in any other way than literally. Some may argue that they don’t like being slapped in the face with a metaphor, which is fine, but most are completely turned off by thinking outside the box at all. Those people shouldn’t see Kaufman movies. Too bad, because he is the most important screenwriter (and, now, perhaps film maker) alive. Kaufman would be the first to tell you that everything in the movie is open to interpretation, but regarding the burning house, I was reminded of lyrics written by Issac Brock of the band Modest Mouse; “Every one’s a building burning with no one to put the fire out/Staring at the window, looking out/Waiting for time to burn us down”. How appropriate considering the most obvious theme of the film is death and how we ignore it’s inevitability.
There are several pieces of evidence throughout the film of people ignoring something. There’s the burning house, of course, and Cotard’s therapist, played by Hope Davis in another terrific bit part, has terrible blisters from her tight fitting shoes which go unmentioned and she smiles through her teeth. There are more than a couple brilliant monologues regarding our mortality and thankfully they are laced with necessary, albeit dark, humour. Kaufman also tackles a familiar subject which is false expectations.
His disbelief in romantic love lead to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it’s no surprise he explores such disappointment even further. Caden Cotard goes through heartbreak, yes, but really he never experiences love in the first place. At least not in it’s commerical form. He is lonely when he is alone and when he’s with someone. He cries when he becomes intimate with a woman. He tries only to use everyone in the way he wants them. Cotard wants no one to be themselves. This is something we may all be guilty of, wanting everyone to be a version of themselves that pleases us best. In life we direct and manipulate those around us like Cotard directs his actors. What he expects and wants is not possible. In the end he is left with the approximation of an ideal, a flawed microcosm, or an illusive synecdoche.
Kaufman delivers plenty of devastating insights such as that no one ever really knows us, not truly. Depressing but truthful, this film is more than a common movie, it is a work of great fiction worthy of being studied for years to come. I know I will. Synecdoche strikes me as a film I will receive endless value from. I believe that every time I watch it, I will interact with it differently and sometimes find something new. Something that made me sad may make me laugh years down the line, and vice versa. It will remain thought-provoking but new and different thoughts will be conjured each time. This is living, breathing art that one could appreciate forever.
I could mention that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is yet again Oscar-worthy (surprise!). That each supporting actress is so perfect I can’t single any of them out and that all of them should receive the award for best supporting actress. I could mention how special the sets are, that there’s some of the best make up work I’ve ever seen. I could mention that the score is wonderful and that the song, “Little Person” is now a favourite of mine thanks to how it’s used. I could mention a great many other immense successes, but I’ll get to that a little further down the line. Maybe after I’ve seen the movie a few more times. Initially, the aspect of Synecdoche, New York that I’m focused on is that it’s one of the most rich, fulfilling, satisfying, cathartic and significant movie experiences of my life.
*Originally posted on www.thebrowncoat.blogspot.com