Synecdoche, New York

Movies Reviews Charlie Kaufman
Synecdoche, New York

Release Date: Oct. 24
Writer/Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematographer: Fred Elmes
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener
Studio/Run Time:
Sony Pictures Classics, 124 mins.

Kaufman’s first film in the director’s chair intriguing but overreaching

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a sprawling, fantastical examination of love, death and the wildness of art. Although the film spans an unspecified period of time, it stays mostly focused on Caden Cotard (played with striking intensity by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 40-year-old regional theater director with encroaching fantasies/nightmares of his own death, and whose fears tend to manifest as unappetizing skin conditions and/or cleaning binges. His marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) is deeply strained, and when Cotard is awarded a MacArthur grant, he purchases a massive hanger in New York City, determined to stage his life story, to scale. Before he leaves, Adele flees to Germany with their 4-year old daughter, and Caden becomes romantically involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton) and Claire (Michelle Williams), the lead actress in his production company.

Mostly, Synecdoche is an exercise in semiotic theory, with a script that relentlessly prods the link between language and truth, representation and reality: words with double-meanings (stool, pipe) are heard correctly but misunderstood. Symbols and their subjects trade places; fake tears function as real tears, leads and extras are interchangeable, actors playing actors stand in for real people who are actually characters conceived by Kaufman, re-conceived by Caden, and re-re-conceived by the actor Caden casts to play himself. Even the film’s title—which nods to the actual brick-and-blood town of Schenectady, N.Y. (where the first act of the movie takes place)—is a high-minded ruse, intended to send critics scuttling off to their dictionaries: Merriam-Webster defines synecdoche as a “figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made.” For Kaufman, perception is fluid—fodder for jokes and tragedies—and nothing exists solely as itself.

Echoing the infamous third act of Kaufman’s Adaptation, Synecdoche eventually ditches its semi-conventional beginnings in favor of true ludicrousness—the final hour of the film embraces the existential underpinnings of the Theater of the Absurd (chunks of script feel as if they could’ve been plucked from the notebooks of Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco), snowballing into a fractured, convoluted, and bleak mess of a movie that’s as head-scratchingly intriguing as it is ridiculous. Much like the work of author Aimee Bender (whose acclaimed short story “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” seems like the inspiration for Hazel, who lives comfortably and normally in a house on fire), Kaufman casually stitches together the real and the unreal, and then refuses to acknowledge the difference.

Still, the finished film is more tedious than revelatory, and there’s a good chance you’ll spend its final 30 minutes sticking and unsticking your feet from the theater floor, eyeing the exit signs. Kaufman’s epic script challenges the medium of filmmaking by prodding the form, structure and boundaries of a single, tortured life, rethinking the nature of narrative by deconstructing the ultimate narrative. But it didn’t successfully unfurl onscreen.

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