One of the perks of this blog is the way that by forcing me to watch such a wide variety of movies, it’s really helped me to learn what I like about cinema and what I don’t. I’m much better at picking out quality movies from mediocre films, and I can tell when a director is really making an insight into the human condition as opposed to cheaply manipulating the audience’s emotions. Another perk is that because I’ve watched so many films that span from my most recent movie review (in terms of how recent it was released), The Avengers, to my oldest reviewed film, The Birth of a Nation, I’ve got 97 years of cinema to draw from to chart the growth of the art form and to see how one director’s works fit in the greater scheme of cinematic canon. I can watch a Terence Malick and immediately notice the debt he pays to Fellini and to Kubrick. Similarly, I can put in a Woody Allen movie and be astounded by just how much the man was influenced by Ingmar Bergman and in turn how much Alexander Payne was influenced by Woody Allen (though striking out on his own, more serious path). I just finished Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut (in addition to his impressive library of films that he’s written), Synecdoche, New York, and while it’s obvious that Kaufman is likely one of the world’s biggest Federico Fellini fans (especially 8 1/2 as I noted in my Adaptation. review), he is an artist of such startlingly original creative vision that at this point, we must simply bow down and say that along with David Lynch, he is one of the true masters of the cinematic form of this age and that Synecdoche, New York is likely his best film to date.
Caden Cotard is a neurotic and depressed hypochondriac that makes his living as a small, regional theater director. His current play is an (ultimately ironic now that I think about it) adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where he casts younger actors in the roles of Willy and Linda. He is in a loveless marriage with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their young daughter Olive. Although the critics and audience adore his play, Adele, a fellow artist, sees nothing of value or originality in it and along with other reasons decides to leave for Berlin with Olive and never (intentionally) enters Caden’s life ever again. Caden enters an even more depressed funk and not even the blossoming of a romance with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) can help him. Ultimately, his own neuroses and self-loathing destroy this before it can even take off the ground. Things have the potential to turn around for Caden though when he’s given a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant. He decides to stage an original play which he hopes will be the great achievement of his life. Purchasing an airplane hangar sized warehouse (much bigger than that though) in New York City, Caden hopes to stage a massive play to capture the brutal truth and despair of life. He creates a life-size replica of many of the places in his life and casts actors to play himself as well as those involved in his life. As the line between art and reality becomes incredibly thin, time continues to flow forward in Caden’s life as he spends decades working on a play that may never actually come to fruition.
That brief description of the plot doesn’t begin to do justice to the recursive and multi-layered storytelling going on in this film. If you thought Kaufman’s previous pictures were complex and and highly meta-textual, Synecdoche, New York makes them look like child’s play. The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. We’re taken through decades in the life of one man flailing against his own mortality and existence and his own ultimate lack of importance. God, now I’m making even more connections to Death of a Salesman. Caden has so much in common with Willy Loman that I didn’t even think about during the film itself. Except in Synecdoche, New York, I sort of think that the point is we’re all Willy Lomans but I don’t want to ruin the beautiful and heart-wrenching (it manages to be both of those things simultaneously) denouement of the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Because you’re going to spend two hours wondering what the hell you’re watching and what the ultimate meaning of this film is. You’re going to think that Charlie Kaufman’s film is as incoherent and unnecessarily sprawling as Caden’s play-within-the-film. And then the ending strikes you like a massive slap to the face, and you realize what a genius Kaufman is. Let me just say this. There are directors and writers whose heads I’d like to explore. I’d love to delve into Neil Gaiman’s mind or David Lynch’s or Woody Allen’s. I want to spend zero time in Kaufman’s mind. The two characters in his body of work that seem to be the most obvious Kaufman stand-ins are A) himself in Adaptation (for obvious reasons) and B) Caden in this film. They’re both highly depressed and neurotic individuals. I have enough of that in my own life and not since Woody Allen has there been a writer who has so expertly nailed self-loathing and neuroses.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation and along with Happiness, this is likely one of the greatest performances of his career (and deserved far more recognition than it got). If Woody Allen and Paul Giamatti are the two go-to actors of the last two generations for neuroses and malaise (especially malaise), Philip Seymour Hoffman has taken that mantle for his peer group. When you can make an utterly pathetic and miserable human being so compelling to watch, you’ve achieved something. Back to the Death of a Salesman comparisons, but Caden has much in common with Willy Loman. Except he’s even less likeable and far less charismatic. With the help of wonderful prosthetic makeup to age him, Philip Seymour Hoffman guides us on a journey through Caden’s ultimately fruitless life with few landmarks other than the next tragedy and embarrassment. Yet, in the vein of all of the great “pathetic heroes” or the Willy Loman archetype, it is in the humanity and ultimate rawness of Hoffman’s performance that we care deeply about Caden despite his own insignificance (and in turn, our own insignificance). The performances from the rest of the cast are stellar as well. There are too many wonderful supporting performances to mention all of them but special mention must go to Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson for exceptional performances later in the film in smaller roles (in terms of time on screen) that turn out to be the crux on which much of the film turns.
Virtually the key trait I judge films by anymore (because let’s face it, plot is a dried up well at this point. There are rare exceptions [this film was one of those exceptions]) is their ability to evoke an emotional reaction. Obviously, long-time readers of this blog know the value I place in gorgeous and symbolically rife cinematography but that doesn’t make a film. Those only work when a film is able to either hit me at a visceral, gut emotional level or the film bends my brain to contortionist levels. Not since The Road has a film hit me so deeply. Where The Road took an apocalyptic and desolate story to deliver a fable on fathers and sons as well as the misery of life (and whether life is as valuable as we believe and if it’s actually worth living in such horrendous conditions, Synecdoche, New York looks at the impending apocalypse of our own life. It looks at the fictions we create to deal with our own mortality. It basically lets us know that we aren’t worth a damn in the scheme of things. We create our own misery by focusing on the inevitable terrible parts of life and then we get upset by the fact that someday we won’t even be able to experience misery. It’s a comment on the ways that some of us over-intellectualize our own lives to the point that we stop living and get lost in the dense jungle of our own thoughts. This film hit far too close to for me. Part of me is still convinced that I chose writing as a profession because it allowed me to escape the horrible realities of life and the chance of failure and moral compromise inherent in the paths I had set myself on before my career change. So, to say that I’m still wrestling with the heavy emotional toll of Synecdoche, New York would a gross understatement. I imagine for all intellectuals, your emotional reaction to this film will be similar.
This was Kaufman’s directorial debut and while part of me is slightly curious as to what the film would look like if a more established director had made the film (like say his frequent collaborator Spike Jonze or even Eternal Sunshine‘s Michael Gondry), but with a film this personal, it ultimately makes sense that Kaufman wouldn’t let anyone other than himself this close to the heart of it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the working pieces of this film, and I suspect (nay, I know with certainty) that it will take multiple viewings to fully grasp what was always happening in this film. By the film’s final act, linearity and reality became a pretzel of fourth-wall blurring magic. Certain visual clues in the film (the way that Caden sees himself and others in the television, the recurring motif that Hazel’s home is on fire, certain things that simply could not happen in reality) lead me to suspect that we are in fact watching Caden’s finished play. We just never see the curtains go up or go down. To me, either that’s the case or the film follows absolutely zero rules of reality. I’m fine with either interpretation. It’s easily one of the most structurally complex films I’ve ever seen, and I’m not ashamed to admit that there were moments in the film (and in my moments of quiet contemplation after it finished) where my head was aching trying to put it all together. Even the title is clever in that typically Charlie Kaufman way as a phonetic pun on Schenectady, NY (where the film begins) as well as the literary concept of asynecdoche which is where a part of something represents the whole (or in reverse). It’s essentially what Caden is trying to do with his play by representing the totality of life and truth through this play (and also what Kaufman is doing with his own film).
If I try to capture all of the intricacies and subtexts of this film, I’ll wind up creating a life-size replica of the movie and I don’t have the energy to go further down the Charlie Kaufman rabbit hole. I warned you all when I reviewed Adaptation. that it was going to be a Charlie Kaufman week here, and the next movie in my instant queue is Being John Malkovich (though I’ll likely watch the Gary Cooper version of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I have at home right now first). So, I’m going to spending a lot of my time in my own head and despite my reservations earlier, I’ll be spending a lot of time in Kaufman’s head. We’re nearing 2000 words which is my limit for any of my reviews (for my sanity’s sake as well as my readers’) so let’s draw this to a close. Should you watch Synecdoche, New York? If you found any of Kaufman’s other films to be unnecessarily obtuse or difficult, then absolutely not. This movie will confuse the hell out of you. If you’re feeling depressed or are in the mist of existential angst, this movie will only make things worse (though I would still recommend you watch it). This is without question one of the most complex and thought-provoking films I’ve reviewed for this blog. In terms of its capability to induce head-scratching confusion, it’s only really matched by Inland Empire though it far outstrips Lynch’s film because of its thematic brilliance and deep insight into the human condition. I don’t give away perfect scores very often. My list for this blog makes me watch the supposed “very best” that cinema has to offer. And out of 235 films, I’ve given away 11 “A+”‘s. So, when I say this is one of the best films I’ve watched for this entire blog. It’s true, and for those wanting an intellectually challenging film experience, Synecdoche, New York is almost peerless.
Final Score: A+