Director: Charlie Kaufman
Release Date: October 24th, 2008 (US); May 15th, 2009 (UK)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams
From the eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman comes Synecdoche, New York, the story of a debilitated theatre director who, fearing his impending death and the loss of his identity and legacy with it, decides to create a grandiose production based on his life in order to leave something behind.
Synecdoche, New York is like a Chris Nolan film blown way out of proportion. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a negative thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a turn at a man, Caden Cotard, who is slowly losing his grip both on life physically and mentally, as his perceived reality becomes something of a concoction of what is real and what is not real. Suffering from numerous ailments which are taking a toll on his health, Caden’s decision to devise an out-of-this-world (literally) theatre production in a massive warehouse in the theatre district of New York strikes up a number of questions about life, both for himself and for the audience (or, myself at least).
His inability to sustain a relationship with any woman plays an integral role in throughout film. He has three significant relationships during its course: his wife at the beginning who moves to Berlin to pursue her career in art, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener); an actress who is part of his cast and who becomes disenfranchised with Caden’s obsession about his production, Claire Keen (Michelle Williams); and Caden’s long-time assistant and box office manager, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Caden also has a less than productive relationship with his therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) and a non-existent to heart-wrenching affiliation with his misguided daughter, Olive (Robin Weigert). Perhaps this lack of a consistent connection and commitment mirrors Caden’s loss of a base in real life — he seemingly cannot sustain a healthy absolute existence — thus prompting him to focus all of his energy into an epic-scale production where his life, and all of those around him, he is able to view from the outside, as if it were fiction.
Having only watched Synecdoche, New York once, I am absolutely certain there are a number of elements I missed whilst viewing the film, but one that definitely stuck out was Caden’s seemingly bleak view regarding his own life. For example, he is left almost angered at his original wife’s success over in Berlin, so much so that he continues to increase the scale of his own production, as opposed to Adele’s dedication to miniature art-work. Caden does not feel the world he lives in notices him (his wife and daughter have left him, his health continually deteriorates) and the only time it does muster something up for him — a MacArthur Fellowship — he takes that as a sign to build a legacy that he believes will have to be noticed and highly regarded when he inevitably passes. As the film progresses, so too does Kaufman’s direction and informal misdirection, as Caden’s life becomes increasingly blurred and entangled with the lives of his and his casts doppelgängers, with each doppelgänger hired to portray significant players in his own life as a part of his production. As a viewer, it is often difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening in Caden’s life, and what is a part of the production — even his actors often need to ask Caden to halt proceedings in order to talk in reality — adding to the overarching trench of mind-numbing facets on display.
Hoffman is exceptional as the lead character, forcing Caden’s anguish down the viewer’s throat, leaving a lump in it and generating total empathy for the character. At this stage in the game, average performances are not on the menu when it comes to Hoffman, who seems to be churning out one gourmet dish after another. The supporting cast all provide the necessary emotion and disconnection towards Caden, with Samantha Banks in particular standing out as Hazel, who seems not to share Caden’s fear of impending death as she decides to live in a burning house where death crackles along every wooden beam. Michelle Williams, pre-Blue Valentine fame, effectively acts as a fountain of sympathy towards Caden, before her disillusionment evokes the eruption of a fiery side. Charlie Kaufman certainly deserves praise for successfully carrying out the seemingly unenviable task of progressively directing doubt and fictitious elements into the film, without going overboard and turning proceedings into a complete mesh of insincerity.
In the midst of all the gloominess and lack of clarity, Synecdoche, New York boasts characters who are crying out (again, literally) for sympathy and who, regardless of their faults — of which there are many — deserve sympathy from the audience. After being left speechless at the contents of the film itself, the emotion followed through like a ton of bricks for me. Although much of the film is based on deciphering what is real from what is not, there is a distinct element of something present which is grounded in everyday life. At its very simplest, the film is a portrait of a middle-aged man who is struggling through his job when we first see him on-screen, whose health is continually threatened and whose relationship(s) is crumbling. Okay, so it is not grounded in my everyday life (I am not quite middle-aged yet), but it certainly provides a commentary on a potential and very realistic life.
This is without doubt the most challenging review I have written, and it probably does not make a whole lot of sense if you have not seen the film (it might not even make any sense if you have), but to me that is in fitting with the surreal, but equally rational, thought-provoker that is Synecdoche, New York.
It will make you think, and then it will make you think again.