What do we want from the world? From our lovers? From ourselves? I doubt if there is anyone who could accurately or completely answer those questions. Even if there was a person who spoke every language past, present and future, that person couldn’t find the words. They would give an answer, an answer that was only a part standing in for the whole. A synecdoche.
Synecdoche, New York confronts these questions. It postulates that the tensions in the lives of its characters stem from the disconnect between what they want and the fraction of it they can articulate. It follows Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a regional theater director living in Schenectady, New York. He is in an unhappy marriage to his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener). He is creatively stifled. He is preoccupied with death, reads the obituaries, and he is possibly dying. His name, Cotard, is the name of a rare mental disorder wherein a person believes they are already dead. So maybe he just thinks he’s dying.
Adele, an artist herself, can’t live the life of stifled dreams any longer. She leaves Caden and takes their daughter to Berlin. Caden’s world shatters. So does the narrative. Caden wins the MacArthur Genius Grant. He plans to use the money to create an elaborate piece of theater. He will pour himself into it, but once he’s done, will there be anything left?
Synecdoche, New York’s narrative cannot be explained in much more detail in this review. The symptoms of Caden’s disease worsen, or the symptoms he believes he has do. His original family never returns. He makes several attempts to find his wife and his daughter. They fail. He installs his production in an impossibly large warehouse in Manhattan's theater district. He writes episodes from his quest to regain his family into his play. In the process he blurs the distinction between the drama and the dramatist. He embarks on an ill-fated attempt at an affair, and alienates the woman he loves most, Hazel (Samantha Morton). He casts his lead actress, Claire (a brilliant Michelle Williams), as Hazel and revolves his production around her. He marries Claire and produces a new daughter. He alienates this new family as well. He recasts Claire as herself. He hires a new actress to play Hazel. He hires an actor to play himself. He fills the warehouse with a life size replica of New York City, and populates it with actors portraying everyone he has ever loved, known, or maybe everyone he’s ever seen on the street. He’s looking for something, but, what? He can’t say. Not entirely. So he is building this part in hopes that it will lead him to the whole.
Synecdoche, New York is almost frustratingly inaccessible. It’s narrative is fractured and convoluted. Consider this sentence: Caden casts Sammy to play Caden in the play, and then casts another actor to play Sammy playing Caden. You see what I mean? But somehow looking at Caden’s truly sad life this way, played and replayed at increasing levels of narrative distance somehow makes Caden’s feelings abundantly, achingly, unremittingly clear. As quickly as I lost track of the narrative, I identified with the characters.
Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay and directed the film – his directorial debut. I’m not sure that Kaufman was the right choice to direct his own work. There are passages that I think would have been clearer if filtered through the steadier directorial hand of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. It has the grammar of Fellini’s 8 1/2, but not its substance. Imagine if 8 1/2 were Fellini’s first picture, and the problems with this film begin to take shape.
That said, the scope and depth of Synecdoche, New York is awe inspiring. When the narrative jumped 51 weeks ahead without giving me a clue, I gave up on following the story and concentrated on allowing the emotions Synecdoche, New York explores to wash over me like an impressionistic painting. I’m reasonably certain that I “got” it.
Synecdoche, New York explores that space in the darkest part of each of our psyches where we struggle to understand the relationships in our lives – where we struggle to comprehend our place in the world. It explores contradiction that occurs when we understand the sequence of painful events, but can’t comprehend the myriad contradictory causes that led those sequences to occur. I found myself reflecting on my own past, remembering those whose paths have parted with mine whether by death, by distance, or by estrangement and wondering if I truly understood the reasons for those partings. I wondered if they could be explained at all.
This is a melancholy film. It’s anchored by a powerful, complex, and richly layered performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His portrait of a tortured artist struggling to bring meaning to his life (while struggling with a preoccupation beyond his control) takes on an added dimension with the knowledge of his passing. It features a standout performance by Michelle Williams in a very tricky role (at one point she portrays her character portraying Samantha Morton’s character mimicking Michelle Williams’ original character). She may never have been better.
Synecdoche finds itself on this list because it was listed as the best film of the first decade of the new millennium by the esteemed filmmaker Roger Ebert. I am in awe of what Synecdoche, New York was trying to do, but only haunted by the film that was produced. I think Kaufman needs a translator to bring his postmodern masterpieces to his audience. Without that translator, I don't think the film finds the proper balance between its daring heights and well... being comprehensible. In the end, it's a great film. A complex one. A film that demands to be studied rather than a film that demands to be seen. For that reason, I don't think it will make my ultimate list of classics from the first decade of this millenium.
My quest for a classic continues with Finding Nemo...
From Out in the Void