Synecdoche, New York

Movie Information

The Story: A would-be visionary tries -- for years -- to stage his ever-growing, ever-changing masterpiece. The Lowdown: A singularly strange movie that requires both patience and considerable work from the viewer. Only for those looking for a film that challenges them -- and whether you like it or not, it's hard to deny that it does that.
Score:

Genre: Surrealist Drama With Comedy
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest
Rated: R

As weird, puzzling and maddening a film as you’re likely to find anywhere this side of David Lynch at his Lynchiest, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is either a work of great profundity or of notable pretension—or possibly both. Kaufman, who made his name writing such screenplays as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), has here gone the next step and parked himself in the director’s chair as well. The results may signify a case of the lunatic having taken over the asylum, but that doesn’t prevent the film from being perhaps the most fascinating and frustrating movie of the year. And there’s a central conundrum in this, because the film wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating if it weren’t frustrating. It’s ironic, then, that the frustration is externally compounded by Synedoche hitting town at the same time as the flood of year-end movies. Since it can only play for a week, almost no one will see it—or have time to see it twice, which it probably demands.

To the degree that Kaufman’s film can be summarized, it tells the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an avant-garde theater director who is married to a woman, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), who paints miniatures so small that magnifying glasses are required to see them. Things are not good between them. Adele is tired of Caden’s hypochondria and of subjugating her own art to his needs, so it’s no real surprise—except to him—when she runs off to Paris with their daughter (Robin Weigert) and another woman, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Convinced—somewhat, but not entirely irrationally—of his impending death, Caden becomes obsessed with making his ultimate artistic statement, something made possible when he lands a grant. This statement involves recreating New York City in an ever-growing number of warehouses with his ever-evolving cast actually living their roles. Years and years pass after Adele’s departure as Caden keeps working at realizing his vision.

That’s more or less the “plot” of Synecdoche, but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of either the increasingly strange events that occur during the course of the film or the thematic implications of it all. We are, after all, dealing with a movie that contains such concepts as one of the women in Caden’s life, Hazel (Samantha Morton), being hesitant to buy a house (though she ultimately does) because it’s on fire. “I’m just not sure I want to die in a fire,” she tells the real-estate agent (Amy Wright), only to be told that the choice of the manner of one’s death “is a very personal thing.” Or take, for example, Caden’s encounter with his adult daughter—who is dying from the toxicity of the flowers tattooed all over her body by her mentor/lover Maria—when she insists that he ask her forgiveness for something that never happened so she can forgive him. She tells him she can’t forgive him, whereupon she expires and (in a truly inspired touch) a petal from one of her floral tattoos falls onto the bed.

We’re talking about a movie in which the actors playing Caden’s characters become those characters. We’re caught in the world of Caden’s life—and the lives his life impacts—in such a way that reality and fiction are totally merged. Before it’s over, Caden has so become his characters that not only is he interchangeable with his own creations, but the creations actually control him rather than the other way around (or maybe they always have been in control).

On its simplest level, Synecdoche is an impossibly layered expression of the idea that life is that thing that happens to you while you’re making other plans. It’s also a statement on the inability of really divorcing the artist from his art, and a meditation on the life of the art apart from that of the artist—of art as a living entity with ideas of its own that direct the artist’s work. At the same time, the film is a devastating comment on the futility of “getting it right.” But it just skirts being depressing, because it recognizes the gloriousness of trying to attain that unattainable goal.

Synecdoche, New York has been called a “love it or hate it” proposition. That’s probably true. There are many people who will despise the film and find it incomprehensible garbage. Others will feel they’re in the presence of greatness. While I lean more toward the latter position, I have to admit that that’s a cumulative response. I was both bored and annoyed with the first 30 minutes of the movie. There’s a basic ugliness to that part of the film that I never quite got past, even though the whole of the experience made up for it. Subsequent viewings—and I suspect there will be several—may alter that. Time will tell, but for now the film must remain a flawed brilliant oddity that, if nothing else, goes places most movies never even dream of. Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

17 thoughts on “Synecdoche, New York

  1. Sean Williams

    Synecdoche, New York is either a work of great profundity or of notable pretension — or possibly both.

    Sounds like it actively encourages both impressions — a common device in artistic musings of this sort.

    Sounds like a fascinating film, anyways. Out of curiosity, what do you mean when you refer to the “basic ugliness” of the first half-hour?

    Synecdoche, New York has been called a “love it or hate it” proposition. That’s probably true.

    Time named it second-best film of the year.

    Guess which one they named best film?

  2. Ken Hanke

    This Movie is not playing anywhere around this location. Thanks for the review, though!

    Well, it was playing the day the review came out. Unfortunately, by Friday it had departed to make way for Slumdog Millionaire. I was hoping Synecdoche would have done enough business that someone else might pick it up, but that didn’t happen.

  3. Darn it! I wish I had been more on the Ball! I really wanted to see this one on the BIG Screen. It looks really great. What was Time’s #1 FIlm of the Year by the Way?

  4. Oh, I don’t know. I misread the Comment above my first one and thought that You wrote it. It says Time named Synecdoche, New York the second-best film of the Year…
    Sean Williams must have some inside information!

  5. Ken Hanke

    Sean Williams must have some inside information!

    He’s probably paid better attention than I have.

    I suppose he’s going to taunt us with what was their no. one choice. (And that probably means it was either The Dark Knight or WALL-E.)

  6. Sean Williams

    It was WALL-E, of course. The Dark Knight, surprisingly, was not on the list at all, though Iron Man was. The inclusion of Speed Racer should have shocked me, but given the current state of Time

  7. Ken Hanke

    In all honesty, the inclusion of Speed Racer bothers me less than the inclusion of WALL-E. While, for me at least, Speed Racer ultimately fails, it at the very least tried to stretch the boundaries and show me something I’d never seen before. WALL-E, regardless of its merits (which I think are overstated), didn’t. I’d probably rate Iron Man over The Dark Knight myself, but I’d rate Hellboy 2 over both of them.

  8. Justin Souther

    Speed Racer being included doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but that will become apparent Ken and my own Top Ten lists come out in the coming weeks.

  9. Sean Williams

    In all honesty, the inclusion of Speed Racer bothers me less than the inclusion of WALL-E.

    Ambitious failure versus unambitious success, basically? I see that case. And I, for one, am sick of the effusive acclaim for every single PIXAR film. Few of them are actually bad, but really, are they modern classics?

  10. Ken Hanke

    And I, for one, am sick of the effusive acclaim for every single PIXAR film. Few of them are actually bad, but really, are they modern classics?

    I suppose that’s too subjective to answer, though it seems to me that the rush to proclaim movies classics within a week of their release is just stupid. It always reminds me of a gag in an old TV show about morning disc jockeys, Good Morning, World, where a song is refered to as “a golden oldie” because it “takes us all the way back to last Tuesday.”

  11. Sean Williams

    I suppose that’s too subjective to answer, though it seems to me that the rush to proclaim movies classics within a week of their release is just stupid.

    Especially when discriminating viewers will forget them within the month.

    I’ve yet to see The Dark Knight, but it seems to me that the acclaim for Ledger’s performance was inevitable after his death. The buzz began before the film was even in theaters, before any critic had screened it.

    Or is that assessment too cynical?

  12. Ken Hanke

    Especially when discriminating viewers will forget them within the month.

    To some degree, that’s true enough, but to some degree, it’s also inevitable. Volume is the culprit here — and maybe it’s more prevalent in the critical community than anywhere else. “Normal” people — by which I mean those who don’t work in the realm of film in some manner — don’t see upwards of 200 new movies a year. It’s sometimes impossible not to forget some of them — sometimes even fairly worthy ones. I don’t mean forget them in the literal sense, but in the sense that other films supercede them in the mind. Off the top of my head, I can name several good movies from 2008 — Priceless, When Did You Last See Your Father?, Flawless, Tell No One, Elegy — that have fallen off the radar of my conscious mind. I have to work at recalling them, or see them on a list of the year’s movies to think of them. I haven’t forgotten them as such, but they’ve become buried in the overall wave of movies. I suppose they lack that indefinable “something” that keeps them fresh in the mind. That I might one day run across them and watch them again and be delighted by their quality is not unthinkable.

    I’ve yet to see The Dark Knight, but it seems to me that the acclaim for Ledger’s performance was inevitable after his death. The buzz began before the film was even in theaters, before any critic had screened it.

    Oh, there’s something to that, though I have no overwhelming problem with his performance — even if I tend to agree a bit with a friend’s assessment of it as “well, it’s certainly a busy performance.” The thing is “certainly busy” isn’t necessarily a bad attribute. But I can’t get away from the feeling that the performance looks better than it is because it’s simply the liveliest thing in an otherwise rather dreary movie.

  13. irelephant

    Well, I have been sufficiently synecdoched–thanks in no small part to you, Ken.

    A richly strange picture. I loved it. And it probably says alot about me that the line that stood out the most for me the next day was one from Caden’s daughter: “Daddy, will you give me a nickel if I don’t play with my pee-pee no more.”

    I have a rich intellectual life.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I have a rich intellectual life.

    No doubt. Now the question arises as to whether you intend on using that line in public? I suspect it would be a terrific icebreaker.

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