Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Runtime: 124 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity.
Links: Trailer, IMDb.

By Ryan Dewerth

I’ve sat here for a while now trying to think about how I’m going to begin this review. I have concluded that there really isn’t any conventional way to do such a thing. I suppose the best thing to do is just to lay out my thoughts and emotions exactly as they occurred. What happened that night wasn’t merely a viewing of a film, but rather a complete experience. To be able to write a proper review of the film itself, I have to go beyond that and share that experience.

On November 21st. four friends and I spent three hours and took four different buses to get to the Oriental Movie Theater in downtown Milwaukee. It shouldn’t have taken that long but our route got messed up and we were left boarding buses and not quite sure if it was the right one. It was the most work we’ve ever done to get to a movie, and as luck would have it, it would also be the most rewarding.

After dinner at a charming organic restaurant, we walked around the area for a bit and entered the theater. The five of us took the front-row, center seats as means of receiving the image before anyone else in the room. It was as if we somehow believed that if we weren’t behind anyone, we can truly take the film for what it is and not be affected by the reactions of those in front of us. The lights dimmed down. The credits began. I was filled with excitement.

On the surface, one could describe writer / director Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York simply as a depressed man who spends much of his life putting together a massive theater piece that deals with his life and those around him. As I think about it now, could it really be much more than that? In one perspective, no, that’s all there really is to it. In another perspective, there’s so much more than that. Life in general is a lot like this. (I do not believe this to be a coincidence.) When one looks at life, from a simple standpoint, they see that the only thing they really need to (or should) do is get educated, become successful, find a spouse, have kids, retire, and then finally, die. Rarely, can any one person think about life with a solely simplistic outlook. Each and every mind veers off and asks themselves the meaning of life and question their existence. Now, it may seem like I’m getting off-track here, but I assure you, this is the epitome of ‘relevance’. Much like life, Synecdoche, New York explores the complexities of not just the basic process of theater production but the very core of being.

Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an average man. He’s unhappily married to Adele, played by Catherine Keener, and has a four year old daughter, Olive, who is the essence of innocence. With virtually no support from Adele, his production of Death of a Salesman has just completed and critics are raving it. Despite this, Caden remains unhappy and unfulfilled. He feels as though he hasn’t really accomplished much of anything in his life. After an accident regarding a bathroom sink pipe, he is sent to various doctors for various reasons. Without any clear explanation, he becomes under the impression that death will soon face him. Due to the success of his play adaptation, he has received a MaCarthur grant in which he decides that it’s time to create something honest and meaningful. In response to this challenge, he buys out a massive warehouse in which he attempts to recreate his life and everyone in it in a way to be remembered for something profound once his time on Earth has ended. He sets up stages to resemble buildings and rooms from his own life as he hires actors to play people that he’s crossed paths with once, people that he’s known all of his life, and even himself.

Life moves very quickly, whether you want it to or not. In the opening scene, on the surface, we have Caden wake up and go through his routine as any man or woman would. If you look a little closer, you’ll see that this in fact isn’t just one morning. He wakes up to the radio announcing it to be the first of September. He then proceeds to walk downstairs and reads the October 1st. edition of the obituaries. He sets the paper down and takes out a carton of milk which he tells his wife expired on October 20th. By the end of the scene, it is November. Within four or five minutes, we have experienced two months of Caden’s life even though it appears to have taken place over one morning. Much of the film acts like this as does life. Any routine can have the effect of making each and every day blend together with the same monotonous actions.

There is so much going on in this movie and I’m pretty sure essays, and even books could be written about all of the symbolism and metaphors. I really would like to cover all of that here but I feel as though it’d be unfair for you to hear it from me instead of experiencing it for yourself. I’d like to perhaps explore just one thing though; a burning house.

In one scene, one of the main women in Caden’s life, the box office woman / Caden’s love interest, Hazel, played by Samantha Morton, buys a house that’s on fire. She walks through the home with the realtor and contemplates on whether or not she’d like to live inside of a burning house. She eventually buys it and exists as she normally would, except for the fact that she’s living in a house that is continually on fire. This is probably one of the clearest metaphors of all. She begins the process of developing a home, and what is a home? It’s the place where you feel safest; the place where you can escape your troubles of the outside world and just relax. Home is also one of the things that hold you back from truly experiencing the world. Though you are comfortable with a current type of lifestyle, everyone should really step back and ask themselves if it is in fact for the best. Hazel’s home is a burning house and Caden’s home is a massive theater. Is there really a difference?

The screen faded to white and the credits began to roll with the song “Little Person” playing. This song is something special. It embodies the core themes of the film and really forces you to relate the lyrics to what you just saw. Even after the credits, my four friends and I sat there and stared at the screen. I turned to one of them and said “We need to discuss this but not yet. We’re not ready.” Indeed we weren’t. The emotions that filled me as I was walking out of the theater were something that I have never experienced before in my life and doubt that I’ll ever experience again. During the car ride back to one of their houses, we barely spoke and most definitely didn’t speak about what we saw. Once we got there though, we sat in a circle and scraped the surface, but even this didn’t justify the experience.

I felt as though I needed to see it again so the one whom I spoke with right when the credits faded and I ventured out there once again several days later. I was actually anticipating the second viewing more than I was the first. Going in there with all of these ideas about all of the symbolism, meanings, and metaphors was something that genuinely excited me. Much to my surprise, after the re-watch, I felt as though I understood it less and that many of my ideas were shattered; and that is the beauty of it.

Synecdoche, New York is something different for everyone. Not one life is the same and neither is each interpretation. For someone who is young and hasn’t experienced many years, it is a warning, urgently saying not to waste your life away on figuring out the meaning of it all. If you do so, everyone and everything will pass by and leave you. For those who have had many years behind them, it is a reminder saying that it isn’t too late to focus on what’s important. For those who’s hair is grey and bones are brittle, it could perhaps be a sorrowful tale that bears much similarity with their own life.

Once it is all said and done, the film is about the average life. Caden Cotard isn’t just Caden Cotard. He is me, he is you, and he is everyone that you know. His surface may not be the same but throw away the letters of his name and the title of his job. Disregard his age and the city in which he resides. If you take away the skin, you’ll still find blood, muscle, bones, and most of all emotions. Caden Cotard is the representation of each and every human being who dares to question his own existence and the symbolism for anyone who attempts to find meaning in life.

1 thought on “Synecdoche, New York”

  1. I enjoyed your review as well and yes we shared many thoughts. I’m sure we also had dozens of thoughts we didn’t share which of course is the beauty of the richness of this film. It will be #1 on my forthcoming top ten list.

    Completely beside the point but you should check out, it’s a great site with lots of intelligent discussion about film. Lots of love for Synecdoche going around too.

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