Synecdoche, New York (United States, 2008)
With Charlie Kaufman, the writer of such movies as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one expects something weird and wonderful. So it will come as no surprise that "weird" is an apt descriptor for Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut. But "wonderful?" Not really. This is the kind of maddening, overstuffed, overambitious, self-indulgent motion picture that will divide critics and viewers (those few who see it). However, while there are times when this film could be considered strangely compelling, it's mostly an overlong, pretentious bore. Kaufman is clearly striving for greatness - "art" at the expense of all else, including logic - but he falls short by a considerable margin. Just because a movie is ambitious and challenging doesn't mean it can't also be tedious and at times unbearable.
The film starts out almost conventionally. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a Schenectady, New York-based playwright and director who is being forced to face his mortality as a result of a series of bizarre ailments. (Blood in his stool, red urine, pustules on his face, etc.) His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter, is becoming increasingly distant from him. She misses the opening night of his new interpretation of "Death of a Salesman" and decides that she doesn't want him accompanying her on a trip to Germany. Meanwhile, an increasingly lonely Caden is becoming involved with two co-workers: Hazal (Samantha Morton), who works at the box office in the theater where "Death" is playing, and Claire (Michelle Williams), his leading lady. With Adele soon out of the picture in Europe, Caden seeks affection elsewhere, but his growing despondence causes him to struggle with his art and strive to fashion something of astounding and lasting greatness.
Nothing is as straightforward as it seems in Synecdoche, New York. Consider a simple concept like time, for instance. When Caden awakens at the beginning of the film, it's late September. By the time he gets to the breakfast table, it's October. Before the day is over, it's January and, by the next day, it's May. The years fly by like months… or is it the other way around? Time is not a constant in Kaufman's world. It's fluid, like many other things. Caden starts the movie as a robust, middle-aged man but ends it decrepit and stooped-over. Has there been a passage of 50 years or has it only seemed that way?
During the film's second half, Caden creates a replica of New York City within a warehouse and populates his mini-city with actors. There are actors playing Caden (Tom Noonan) and Hazal (Emily Watson), and the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur. The real Caden has an affair with the faux Hazal and the faux Caden has an affair with the real Hazal. It takes a scorecard to keep everything straight, and there's a sense of recursion with Caden directing faux Caden, who's directing the same scene within the play-within-a-play featuring a faux faux Caden.
Synecdoche, New York is relentlessly bleak. That in and of itself is not a problem but it eliminates any joy that might result in unraveling Kaufman's mind-benders. The director doesn't want viewers to enjoy themselves watching this movie. It is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging and, assuming those to be his objectives, he succeeds. Kaufman's previous films ventured along the razor's edge separating ponderous from insightful, but always had a strong enough narrative to anchor them. Here, any pretense of a coherent plot is jettisoned midway through the proceedings. We're left with a movie that becomes so bloated and self-important that it's tough to sit through. The final 30 minutes in particular are difficult because, by then, we've lost the connection to Caden. Synecdoche, New York is less a movie than a series of disjointed meditations on art, death, and the connection between the two. Viewers who love to ascribe meaning to the cryptic will have a field day. To me, it seems more like weirdness for weirdness' sake.
Logic probably doesn't belong in a discussion of a movie of this sort, but viewers are left wondering what's happening with Caden. Is this all a delusion? Are we seeing the world through the eyes of a man who has lost his mind? Is it a representation of one person's final thoughts before (or after) dying? (There's a "mis-spoken" line of dialogue that argues strongly for that interpretation.) Or is this all just a whacked-out fantasy? In the end, it probably doesn't matter. Nothing in this movie has to make sense. There are no rules (at least none we're informed of). Kaufman does whatever he wants with the characters because it suits his purposes. As the director, he has that power. As audience members, we can either go with him or revolt.
It's an impressive cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is in full self-loathing mode - the kind of role in which he is rivaled only by Paul Giamatti. Catherine Keener is delightfully earthy, Samantha Morton is ethereal, and Emily Watson is sexy (once she lets her hair down and takes off her clothing). Jennifer Jason Leigh has a small part as Adele's best friend and the eventual lesbian lover of Caden and Adele's daughter. Hope Davis plays a psychologist and self-help book author. And Dianne Weist is an actor who joins Caden's great art project.
I walked out of Synecdoche, New York feeling frustrated and a little cheated. If I look hard enough, I'm sure I could find something meaningful in the wreckage, but I don't feel compelled to dig through the detritus. Kaufman is inviting meaning-seekers to enjoy his masturbatory ride. He has sacrificed plot, character, and logic on the altar of self-aggrandizement. Yes, parts of the film work. Individual scenes are funny, or poignant, or thought-provoking. But the picture as a whole is a mess. Some will call this art. I'll content myself with thinking of it as an ambitious misstep by a creative individual who failed to realize what he was trying to represent.
Synecdoche, New York (United States, 2008)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Jon Brion
U.S. Distributor: Sydney Kimmel Entertainment