Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 16 October 2008
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
It was a perfectly surreal scene on Church Street outside of Harvard Square’s historic Loews movie theater. With the area’s annual Oktoberfest in full swing, the street was jammed with vendors and performers. A man sang “My Blue Heaven” into a megaphone, and various passersby stopped to snap photos of the uniformed sailors who had settled, along with dozens of other revelers, onto the long red couch that had been installed along most of the length of the sidewalk for the occasion. The impressive line of people awaiting a preview screening of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York – the celebrated screenwriter’s first outing as both writer and director – was comparatively staid, almost blending into the wild scenery. But those who did ditch the autumn carnival for the dark of the movie theater were met with visions considerably stranger (and worlds bleaker) than anything that they’d seen outside.
Synecdoche takes its name not only from the homonymous city but also from the literary term meaning to use a part to signify a larger whole, or vice versa. It follows the travails of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a regional theater director who is suddenly bestowed with a Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant and sets out to create a piece of theater that’s entirely honest, a part that signifies the largest of wholes—life, love, death, everything. Especially death. Caden is mortality-obsessed; he’s terrified that he is dying and still more terrified that he will die without making a genuine artistic contribution to his world and living up to the “genius” part of that grant.
Similar fears of finding oneself a has-been or never-was genius plague the characters in Wes Anderson’s films The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and it’s easy to see why such anxiety would crop up in the works of the filmmakers whose first really big cinematic splashes – the Rushmores and Being John Malkovichs that critics fall hard for – have positioned them as the hottest new things, and maybe geniuses too. And it’s hard not to see Kaufman, who famously wrote himself into Adaptation, in Caden, whose theater production quickly grows so self-reflexive that it threatens to swallow itself. In one striking moment, Caden wanders through the warehouse where his play has set up shop – and interminable rehearsals and casting changes will fill his and many other lifetimes – and directs hordes of actors, reminding a cameraman that he’s not just shooting a given scene; he’s in it.
But to read the film as simply a reflection of Kaufman’s fears and preoccupations would be to deny that they’re our fears and preoccupations too, and that would be dishonest. Caden is profoundly afraid that he is dying, but, as the film frequently reminds us, everyone is dying. Samantha Morton’s wide-eyed box office girl Hazel, the most prominent of the many women who move in and out of Caden’s life, literally lives in a house on fire. Figuratively, so does everyone else.
Synecdoche is often a funny and unapologetically tinged with the absurd and the surreal, but it also focuses so unrelentingly on mortality, creative frustration, romantic confusion, desperation, and isolation that it could trigger a panic attack. Just as Caden wants his play to be about everything, so Synecdoche overflows with ideas, most of them worrying. Time moves in intentionally disorienting fashion from the outset (I wondered if an early, startlingly Ed Wood-like jump from morning to night was an accident and decided that it probably was not.), with some characters aging with dizzying rapidity while others remain incongruously young. (Appropriately, early scenes of the film find Caden directing a regional production of The Death of a Salesman with young actors as Willy and Linda Loman.) Supporting characters grow sick, grow old, and die while Caden is still focused on how many breaths he has left, how much time he has to finish his masterpiece. And in one of Kaufman’s most effective and understated touches, a crumbling, near-apocalyptic future vision of New York sits on the film’s periphery, with Caden too busy navel-gazing to pay it much heed.
It’s a lot. It’s a heavy film and a long one, and it’s absolutely exhausting. The performers do well in bringing humanity to their characters (Poor Catherine Keener, playing the miserable wife again, makes the most of her opportunities to imbue the character with a bit of heart.). Hoffman is asked to shoulder a great deal and does strong work here. But it may be the actors whose characters lighten the mood who fare the best: Peter Friedman as an awkwardly funny doctor, Daniel London as not the brightest of regional theater actors, the reliable Hope Davis as a therapist with vampy lipstick a troubled brow. Michelle Williams’ sweet-natured Claire is missed when she disappears from the film, and Tom Noonan, as the smiley, method non-actor Sammy Barnathan, gets the chance to be first funny, then haunting. (By contrast, Jennifer Jason Leigh gets the short shrift with the vaguely menacing Maria, the most sketchily rendered of the film’s females, who has implied affairs with Caden’s wife and daughter.)
Late in the film there’s a funny wink (swipe?) at The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s mouthful of a title when Caden toys with calling his forever-in-progress would-be masterpiece The Obscure Moon Lighting an Obscure World. Hazel tactfully warns him that that might be a little too much. Synecdoche, New York is almost certainly too much, a film about art being consumed by ambition that is (perhaps ironically, perhaps purposefully) consumed by its own ambition. It’s long-winded, and weird enough to be accused of being overly obscure, but so vocally obsessed with its own themes that it might also be accused of being ham-fisted. In patches, it’s probably guilty of both. It’s also the kind of film that needs digesting and likely rewatching, but the thought of rewatching such a draining film is one that is, I’ll candidly admit, rather daunting.
So I suppose that Synecdoche isn’t likely to have the crossover appeal of most of Kaufman’s films, the kind that brings mainstream moviegoers into the arthouse fold. But it’s not a film to be unthinkingly dismissed, and it won’t be by those with an interest in odd-duck pictures that go for broke. (One can envision Synecdoche embarking upon the savaged-then-salvaged trajectory of many a cult film.) In some critic’s future is an essay placing Synecdoche within Kaufman’s larger body of work. That Kaufman has such an oeuvre to speak of (and that it’s likely to grow with films more successful than this one) is a key place where he and Caden diverge.