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USA 2008
Directed by
Charlie Kaufman
124 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Synecdoche, New York

Synopsis: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a New York off-Broadway theatre director and playwright who has just opened a rejuvenated version of “Death Of A Salesman’. It’s a hit and he is awarded a ‘genius grant’ that will give him the opportunity to produce something of his own. But not everything in his life is going well. He’s suffering from all manner of physical ailments and his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is leaving him for her lesbian lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) taking their young daughter with her.  He becomes involved with two colleagues, Hazel (Samantha Morton) and Claire (Michelle Williams) as his theatre project gets bigger and bigger. Fifty years elapse.

Charlie Kaufman has a reputation as a writer of startlingly original, conceptually complex scripts and here he unquestionably lives up to his reputation. No-one could deny that Synecdoche, New York is original and complex. How successful it may be is, however, another matter. 

In a nutshell the film is about time and consciousness. It starts conventionally enough recounting Caden’s disintegrating relationship with Adele, a feted artist who creates paintings so small that one needs a magnifying glass to see them. However once Hazel goes to view a house for sale that is quietly burning we know that we are not, as they say, in Kansas anymore (the house, in which Hazel will eventually die recurs throughout the film still smouldering, a symbol for the point that, as one character says, “the end is built into the beginning”). Once Caden wins the grant and sets about making a piece of theatre that is “big and true and tough” things really starts getting strange as he begins building a simulacrum of his own life in a huge warehouse recreating his own life as he sees it and hiring actors to play himself building that simulacrum.

Initially, incidental visual cues inform us of the passage of time but, largely through the use of make-up  we realize that large chunks of time have elapsed with Caden incorporating his own life in the work he is making, effectively caught in an infinite regress which ultimately has its sole resolution – death.

Having a script with such Byzantine plotting it is small wonder that Kaufman made it his directorial debut and whilst the result is impressive there are a couple of significant issues that are going to bother some audiences. One is that Kaufman sacrifices dramatic engagement for ludic complexity. Whilst this is entirely characteristic of Caden (who presumably stands in some kind of surrogate relationship to Kaufman) it means that the film remains almost entirely an intellectual exercise (with some surprisingly off-colour sexual references) that particularly in its latter stages (from when Dianne Wiest appears) seems to be permuting for its own sake. The other is the persistent miserablism – the diseases, the sexual failures, and above all the preoccupation with death  - “we are hurtling towards death”, “death approaches faster than you think” - Kaufman’s position (articulated by Wiest-as-Caden) being that [sic] we live, we struggle and then we die. The end.

True and tough perhaps but not big. Life isn’t just misery and the persistent dwelling on it feels a tad too self-indulgent to fully endorse. Flawed as it is, Synecdoche, New York is still an achievement that most film-makers don't even get close to trying and worth seeing for that.

FYI: For a very different pairing of Keener and Hoffman see Capote (2005)




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