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Synecdoche, New York

A 2008 film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman.

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A moving, sad, funny and OH SO FRUSTRATING Masterpiece!

  • Sep 14, 2010
  • by
I don't even know how to start reviewing SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the new film from writer (ETERNAL SUNSHINE, ADAPTATION) and first-time director Charles Kaufman. I've been looking for a way in to this review since seeing the film two evenings ago.

Here's the best I can come up with: what WAITING FOR GODOT is to Theatre-Of-The-Absurd, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is to Film-of-the-Absurd. Both projects are brilliant, yet also maddeningly difficult to fathom at times. GODOT, set on a stage decorated with just one bare tree, dared to explore the very condition of living in a world without meaning. SYNECDOCHE uses all the tricks available to filmmakers to explore many of the same questions. Or perhaps it's just one big question.

GODOT is an all-time classic. It is both the epitome and the definition of absurdist theatre. Books have been written about it, and it is still stage with great regularity all over the world, by theatre companies eager to plumb new meaning (or any meaning) from it. SYNECDOCHE will probably not generate such devotion or ruminations. But to view this film is be immersed in the same feelings as a good production of GODOT will get you: to laugh, to feel great sadness, to be confused as hell and to also feel that true understanding of it is tantalizing close, and yet always out of reach.

(I'll admit right here that others will see this film and merely be extremely irritated by it, or think of it as a clever but somewhat boring mindgame. These are also quite valid reactions.)

The film begins on a seemingly typical day in the life of Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a theatre director in a smallish town in upstate New York (Synecdoche...and don't ask me why Kaufman didn't spell it Schenectady). He's near the opening of his production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and he seems as miserable doing what he does as Willy Loman is with his life. His clock radio comes on, and we hear that it is September 1. When Caden arrives in the kitchen for breakfast, the TV tells us it is Halloween, and moments later, a story indicating the date as November 2 is on the radio. So we get the idea, if we're paying attention, that Caden's days are all strikingly similar to each other and that if you see one morning, you're seeing them all. Time is zooming by him. To him, he might experience a week, but in fact a year goes by.

Anyway, Caden is married to Catherine Keener, a visual artist who paints very detailed and VERY tiny miniatures. Some of the funniest moments in film this year revolve around these miniatures...but it's a dry wit. (For example, here pictures are about 1" square. She's sending some to a gallery in Berlin, and for each painting, she has constructed a tiny little shipping crate, complete with excelsior.) Keener is also practically seething with loathing for Caden, because she feels he has long since given up searching for truth in his art. They have a young daughter, Olive.

Eventually, Caden's wife and child go to Berlin for a gallery opening, leaving Caden behind. And they never return. It is in these events that we begin to see how disconnected from life Caden is. He still believes his daughter is a young girl...but she ages into a young adult. Caden himself is visibly aging before our eyes...yet he doesn't seem aware of it. He's afflicted by mysterious ailments, which to him seem to come virtually all at once...yet in reality, they are illnesses that might come one at a time over a many decade span. The illnesses of aging.

During his life, Caden is surrounded by many women. Michelle Williams plays an actress who is enamored of Caden, or at least his ability to get her cast. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Keener's best friend, who may also be leading his daughter Olive astray. Hope Davis is his psychiatrist, who doesn't seem to be on his side at all. But most important is Hazel (Samantha Morton), his box office manager and the one woman who actually seems to cherish Caden...not that he can see it.

As if this weren't confusing enough, early in the movie, Caden is awarded a grant to produce a giant, meaningful, truthful and important piece...anything he wants to do. He rents perhaps the largest warehouse in the world and plans to stage "the truth." He begins to construct a set that basically is to consist of every setting in his own life, and begins to cast actors who will play everyone he's ever known. Yet he can never bring this piece to completion because while he attempts to stage his life, he continues to have a life, which results in needing to add more and more and more to the play. Years and years and years go by.

In two hours, we get to see all of Caden's adult life from the age of roughly 35. He appears to experience it in just months. Is Kaufman saying that Caden (and therefore US) are so busy trying to control, plan or understand our lives that it simply zooms by and we miss it? Yes, that is part of it. He's also reminding us that we are each the "stars" of our own lives...and that the supporting players in our lives are the "stars" of their own lives and that we might be more or less of supporting players in their lives than they are in ours.

But in the end, it seems that Kaufman is trying to make us feel what it is like to live, to age, to come to grips with all our disappointments and to finally get down to a basic understanding of ourselves. How everything is ultimately stripped away and we are left with nothing but our most basic needs. And how if we're lucky, those needs MIGHT be met before we die. But perhaps I'm wrong. That's my impression, but I'll be every viewer takes away something different.

The movie has many, many funny and ridiculous moments. I found myself laughing out loud many times. But the overall feeling is of a sadness so deep, it can only be a sadness of the soul. It isn't a pleasant feeling, particularly as some of the moments may strike a chord...but it feels accurate.

The film is beautifully made. Kaufman has used CGI to craft a stage setting for Caden's "masterpiece" that is breathtaking in scale. The makeup in the movie is wonderful as well...some of the most subtle aging work I've seen.

Everyone is very good. Keener is always an intelligent presence who pops off the screen, this time with barely concealed anger. Davis and Williams are quite good. Later, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest make appearances, and they are also very welcome. But I've got to give special notice to 3 performers. Tom Noonan plays the man who is cast to play Caden in the play Caden produces. Noonan is an amazing screen presence, and while for a change he isn't playing a killer (MANHUNTER, THE PLEDGE), he manages to be both sympathetic yet a little scary. Samantha Morton deserves Oscar consideration for her glowing performance. And Hoffman once again knocks it out of the park (big surprise!). It's the kind of role we think he can do in his sleep...but he finds variations and tones that force him to dig deeper than we've seen.

I'm going to stop here, because while I've told you a lot, I've only skimmed the surface. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is not going to be my favorite film of all time...but you can bet I'll return to it again and again, if only in the hopes of solving its beautiful and frustrating puzzle.

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More Synecdoche, New York reviews
Quick Tip by . July 22, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
had I not been a director of the stage, it would have been easy for me to overlook the beauty of this film. Incredibly dense and cerebral. simply amazing.
Quick Tip by . February 17, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A film that grows on you with multiple viewings. A bizarre, genius, Mobius strip of a film where the lines between reality and fantasy blur.
review by . March 15, 2009
Ultimately, paranoia got the better of the famous 20th-century philosopher Kurt Gödel (1906-1978): He starved himself to death. Gödel once said:  "Don't collect data. If you know everything about yourself, you know everything. There is no use burdening yourself with a lot of data. Once you understand yourself, you understand human nature and then the rest follows."  In Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," lead character Caden Cotard is starved for attention and seeking ever …
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I've got my own site, www.afilmcritic.com, on which I'm posting my reviews. I am 46 years old, married 25 years, two kids (23 & 18) and currently work in accounting/finance. I spent 15 years … more
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About this movie


Synecdoche, New York is a 2008  American film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. It is Kaufman's directorial debut.

The film premiered in competition at the 61st Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2008. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the United States distribution rights, paying no money but agreeing to give the film's backers a portion of the revenues. It had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on October 24, 2008.

The film's title is a play on Schenectady, New York, where much of the film is set, and the concept of synecdoche, wherein a part of something stands for the whole.
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