If you haven't embraced the films that Charlie Kaufman has written, such as "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," then stay away, very far away from "Synecdoche, New York," the first film that Kaufman BOTH writes and directs.
If you HAVE embraced Kaufman's previous screenplays, but kinda sorta wondered what was really going on in his head then "Synecdoche, New York" is the perfect film for you.
Starring Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"), who ought to end up with another nomination here, "Synecdoche, New York" has as its central character Caden Cotard (Hoffman), a working class playwright toiling away in local theatre until he becomes the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and gets the opportunity to create the theatrical masterpiece of his dreams, fantasies, nightmares and reality.
It's possibly important to note, however, that Cotard is really only the central character in Kaufman's film. I'm not really convinced that "Synecdoche, New York" is about Cotard, his first wife (Catherine Keener or his daughter, his box-office assistant and first fling (Samantha Morton), his second wife (Michelle Williams) or any of the other characters who comprise his compartmentalized, skewed sense of reality and fantasy.
If you're already a bit confused about just what "Synecdoche, New York" is about then you may be perfectly prepared for your first viewing of this darn fine film that vacillates between masterpiece and maddening.
Perhaps you are wondering just what the heck the title "Synecdoche, New York" means anyway?
It's probably not relevant knowledge to appreciate the film, in fact, you might very well be better off not having a clue going into the film because odds are you'll be even more clueless following the film. "Synecdoche," which is pronounced in such a way that makes it nearly identifiable to "Schenectady," the actual location of the film, essentially means a part that stands in for the whole.
Confused? Yep, me too.
Yet, this relationship between our compartmentalized lives and the wholeness of our being is a central theme in virtually all of Kaufman's writings and it's emotionally and intellectually exhausting to watch Kaufman bring it to life in "Synecdoche, New York."
How the story, and I use the word story very loosely, evolves is quite irrelevant. Our lives don't make sense, and Kaufman doesn't try to make sense of them other than to paint both sympathetic and unsympathetic portrayals of the ridiculous, sad, hilarious and complex ways in which we spend our entire lives trying to make sense of our entire life. We seek love that will inevitably end, human relationships that will inevitably fail, success that will inevitably turn into failure and beauty that will inevitably fade.
Kaufman doesn't really judge any of this as he simply seems to find the exploration of it completely and utterly exhilarating.
Some critics have complained that "Synecdoche, New York" is pretentious, even intellectual masturbation. So be it...Isn't that what we spend our lives doing? We spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that we have some sort of purpose on this earth, whether it be love, success, fame, money or whatever when really this is just love...it's totally a waste and yet completely charming.
Why do we do it? Because it's all we have to do?
There are two very things I learned quite clearly by watching "Synecdoche, New York"-
First, Philip Seymour IS the finest actor of this generation. Admittedly this is not a huge surprise as I've long been a fan of his work, but Hoffman turns in yet another masterful performance as Cotard, a man who is simultaneously wrapped up in his artistic vision, physical ailments and emotional paralysis. Hoffman's Cotard is not, as the temptation might've been for a lesser actor, a sympathetic man. Hoffman's Cotard is disturbing because he fairly well encompasses everything humanity can be in one literal and figurative fetal ball of a man.
The second thing I learned is that Samantha Morton is, without a doubt, Hollywood's most underrated actress. I've long admired Morton's work, but after her brilliant turn in "In America" I've been completely in awe of it. As Hazel, Morton parallel's remarkable evolution over the course of the film.
As is virtually always true of a Kaufman penned film, the film hinges upon the incohesive cohesion of the entire ensemble cast and Kaufman's cast responds beautifully. While Keener is in the film rather briefly, she's the emotional glue that holds it all together. Likewise, as Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams and Tom Noonan are weaved into and out of the stories the film takes on a chaotic yet resonant life all its own.
One could perhaps make the argument that "Synecdoche, New York" is more performance art than traditional film. That's neither here nor there to me...I've never been one to embrace traditional film conventions, and I found "Synecdoche" emotionally and intellectually stimulating, challenging and captivating.
Will it win the box-office? Impossible. American audiences simply refuse, at least en masse, to embrace a film that requires them to look in the mirror and question themselves or, at the very minimum, be frighteningly honest.
Tech credits are stellar, most notably Jon Brion's score and the cinematography of Frederick Elmes. "Synecdoche, New York" is the kind of film that really requires more than one viewing to take it all in, both the spoken word and the visual imagery. Kaufman's approach to visual imagery brings to mind the work of Michel Gondry, even his non-Kaufman films.
Despite finding "Synecdoche, New York" to be both emotionally and intellectually exhilarating, the film does fall shy of cinematic greatness. "Synecdoche, New York" is a wonderful film but not a masterpiece. There are moments, sometimes extended moments, in which Kaufman's artistic freedom comes at the expense of the film itself. Was this part of the point about life? Who really cares? It doesn't work, at least not all of the time. It should be noted that it was during these scenes that at least four audience members walked out of "Synecdoche, New York"...perhaps exhausted by the intellectual jumping jacks required to view the film and no longer willing to wait for the reward.
The truth is I'm not convinced Kaufman wants us to feel rewarded by viewing "Synecdoche, New York." If you really require a big cinematic payoff, then perhaps "Bolt" or "Twilight" are more your speed.
Is that an insult? Perhaps.
"Synecdoche, New York" is for those who are true cineastes, connoisseurs of cinema who seek more than easy answers, paint-by-number plots and happy endings. "Synecdoche, New York" is about more than Caden Cotard.
It's about you.
It's about me.
It's about life.
That's all there is.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic