Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Uh, okay… and why did Charlie Kaufman want me to watch this movie?

For as interesting as Kaufman’s scripts may be at times, Synecdoche, New York has managed to take interesting and turn it into downright weird for weird’s sake. Perhaps there is a great film inside this jumbled mess of art simulates life simulating art as it twists into a vortex of who’s-it-what’s-it-who when finally in the end you just don’t care enough to bother with it.

Admittedly, seeing the film alone without someone to discuss it with afterwards is a bit of a downer, but then again I would think all films should on some level or another allow for personal as well as communal reflection. Even still, I get the feeling seeing this film in a crowd may result in an hour long discussion of “What did this mean?” resulting in everyone getting bored and heading home without a second thought. The next day someone asking, “So how was the movie last night?” to which you will reply with a blank stare because there isn’t anything to say.

The story centers on theater director Caden Cotard as played with expected clarity by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s a man that seems tapped out, looking for answers and afraid of what he may find. I can only assume Caden is a reflection of Kaufman himself, in a roundabout way of almost embodying the neuroses Woody Allen has used to his benefit in so many of his films. Caden’s life goes in a tailspin when his wife takes his young daughter on a trip abroad to showcase her artwork only to never return. Caden is offered an award that allows him the opportunity to create his own personal masterpiece and when he buys up an abandoned warehouse and begins instructing an ensemble cast of actors to carry out life in all its honesty and even adds himself into the mix the film becomes something indescribable.

I would say the first half of this film is rather tame. It’s straight-forward and you are able to easily follow it. However, once Caden begins work on his master play and his physical sickness, a step-by-step shut down of his autonomic functions, begins to manifest itself more and more you begin to think the disease is the film itself. Caden has no sense of time and the audience doesn’t either as only small references to the years past are made throughout, but sure enough Caden is a withered old man by the end of the film, but so much inside the story may have many wondering if he wasn’t dead already and, if so, when did he die?

To ask any question of this film is to ask too much of it and to give it too much credit. Being weird and eternally coy does not make for a fantastic film as much as it makes audiences think you may actually have nothing to say. This may in fact be the case with Synecdoche. Perhaps everything is right there on screen and to look beneath the surface is to give the film an inch more credit than it deserves, and considering I am giving it very little that isn’t saying much. This is a world where one character’s house is forever on fire and I don’t say this figuratively. It is an obvious attempt at a metaphor for the character, but unfortunately it doesn’t apply. Perhaps seeing it as a metaphor is once again giving the film too much credit. However, if the house was on fire solely for comedic effect this film is even worse than I originally imagined.

Fans of Kaufman are sure to be interested in his directorial debut and he has certainly chosen a massive project for his first time out, but as much as some of his visuals work, including the withered leaf from a tattoo falling to a bedside, the film itself is a giant mess of a feature, just like its protagonist and I am assuming it’s creator. People looking for the Kaufman that brought you Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will certainly find echoes of that man here, but to what end I can’t quite say.