Charlie Kaufman accomplished a number of seemingly impossible achievements when he wrote the movie Being John Malkovich in 1999. Firstly, he managed to make a totally unconventional and weird movie into a commercial success. Secondly, he managed to make a name for himself among film enthusiasts as a screenwriter. Since then, he’s also written the scripts for such weird (and such successful) films as Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now he’s made his debut as a director with Synecdoche, New York a film that’s even more mind-bending than his previous work.
The film follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a middle aged director of avant-garde theater. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is a painter and he has a daughter named Olive. After he’s hit in the head during a pluming accident, Caden finds himself dwelling on his health. Shortly thereafter he unexpectedly receives a MacArthur genius grant and decides to make a play that would be the panicle of honesty, to do this he builds an elaborate set in of an entire city in a football stadium and populates it with actors who are ordered to act like other people living mundane lives. This play is in preparation for a good fifty years; meanwhile Caden must deal with his wife leaving him, his estrangement from his daughter, and the other various women who enter his life.
To call this movie challenging would be an understatement. Kaufman’s previous films were complicated and met, but to a certain extent they were high concept affairs. Being John Malkovich was about people being able to enter the mind of the titular actor, Adaptation was about a writer writing a script about writing that same script, and Eternal Sunshine was about a man’s journey through his own mind while people erase the memories of his ex. Those are all tricky concepts to wrap your head around, but once you “get” the concept, the rest of the movie will probably make sense to you. Synecdoche, New York isn’t rooted in a concrete gimmick like that, and as such it not going to be as accessible.
Synecdoche, New York in many ways seems to have more similarities to Kaufman’s 2001 screenplay Human Nature. Both films deal with broad themes of humanity in very direct ways, and uncompromisingly makes its points in whatever bizarre way Kaufman wants to. This film is exploring a number of themes like the effects of aging, fear of mortality, the purpose of art, the challenges of parenting. The movie is made for people who are going to put some work into deciphering its themes and symbolism, if you’re not that kind of person, then I’m officially not recommending the movie for you. If you are this kind of person, then read on.
They say that drama is life without the boring parts; this is a movie about a man who doesn’t realize the boring parts have been cut out. Most films of this kind take place over a day, maybe a week, but Synecdoche, New York takes place over at least fifty year. The years pass by here at a rapid pace, but the film never uses any sort of non-diegetic trick to mark the time passage, what’s more Caden constantly seems as confused by the years passing as we are. The purpose of all this is for one simple purpose, to express the human notion that their life goes by faster then they realize. For example, Caden’s daughter starts out the film around the age of eight. Throughout the film Caden seems very confused whenever he’s told she’s older than this and before we know it she’s fully grown. One is reminded by this of parents saying their offspring will “always be daddy’s little girl.” Are there easier ways to express these notions? Probably, but that’s to forget how uncompromising Charlie Kaufman is when he wants to make a point about one of these grand themes.
Another fairly trippy symbol occurs when a character played by Samantha Morton tries to buy a house, which is on fire. She is shown this house by a real estate agent who talks about the property in a nonchalant manner despite the obvious flaw of it being on fire. Morton says she’s afraid of being killed by the fire, but that she’ll by the house because she’s already 36 and not getting any younger. Presumably this is supposed to represent aging as well, something that is rushed into despite the fact that it will ultimately kill you. The idea, presumably, is to show that fear of aging is a perfectly rational emotion and that the truly irrational people are those that glamorize the aging process rather than embracing their youth.
The film is not only about aging and mortality; it’s also very interested in the purpose of art. It is easy to assume that Kaufman is again writing himself into his screenplay, much as he did with Adaptation, except in a more covert way. Caden’s elaborate play is obviously a really stupid and pretentious, and Kaufman knows it. After all, why would someone want to replicate reality in such detail when you can just live the real thing? It may also be saying something about just how far an artist will go when he has complete freedom. Without any kind of resistance or financial constraints Caden has the freedom to work on his play until it is perfect, and because Caden is so ambitious, the result is that his work will never be done. He set out to make something great, but because he has no reason to stop he ends up making nothing. His wife’s art by contrast, is comedicly small and manageable, she’s very prolific but what she makes needs a magnifying glass to even be seen.
These are only a few of the crazy symbols that Kaufman fearlessly throws onto the screen. I’m not going to list all of my symbolic observations, if I did this would be a very long review, I’m mainly just trying to give the reader an idea what they’d be getting into with this film. However, I don’t want to give the impression that this can only be enjoyed as a meta exercise in symbolism, though that is a huge part of the movie’s appeal. The film does work simply as an absurdist narrative, the viewer will empathize with Caden throughout the film. I especially enjoyed the last twenty minutes when the film begins to reach its final note. I’d also point out that this is not a movie that just throws out its symbols with reckless abandon, there’s a real method to its madness, a genuine internal logic… probably.
Roger Ebert has suggested in his review of the movie that the movie probably has to be seen twice. This is probably true, but it’s a lot easier for him to say as a professional critic who can see the film at a bunch of festivals before it even opens to the public. As an amateur, probably won’t be able to see it again until its DVD release. I’m not really comfortable saying whether this is “good” or “bad” until that day comes I suppose the biggest questions I have to ask myself are “did the movie make me want to see it again” and “if so, how much.” The answers are “yes” and “a lot.” So I suppose this was quite a success.
***1/2 out of four