Synecdoche, New York Review


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard
Catherine Keener as Adele Lack
Sadie Goldstein as Olive (4 years old)
Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan
Josh Pais as Dr. Eisenberg (Opthamologist)
Daniel London as Tom
Robert Seay as David
Michelle Williams as Claire Keen
Stephen Adly Guirgis as Davis
Samantha Morton as Hazel
Hope Davis as Madeleine Gravis
Frank Girardeau as Plumber
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Maria
Paul Sparks as Derek
Jerry Adler as Caden’s Father
Lynn Cohen as Caden’s Mother
Deirdre O’Connell as Ellen’s Mother
Kat Peters as Ellen (10 years old)
Daisy Tahan as Ariel
Robin Weigert as Adult Olive
Rosemary Murphy as Frances
Emily Watson as Tammy
Tim Guinee as Needleman Actor
Kristen Bush as Actress Playing Claire
Greg McFadden as Actor Playing Needleman Actor
Barbara Haas as Warehouse Actress
William Ryall as Jimmy
Dianne Wiest as Ellen Bascomb / Millicent Weems
Alice Drummond as Actress Playing Frances
Michael Higgins as Actor Playing Man with Nose Bleed
Stanley Krajewski as Actor as Caden
Tom Greer as Medic
Christopher Evan Welch as Pastor
Michael Medeiros as Eric

Directed by Charlie Kaufman


A lot of thought may have gone into constructing this intricate, remotely clever, but ultimately dour and depressing, directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman, but it probably wasn’t worth the effort.

The life of Schnectady, New York theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is falling apart. His wife (Catherine Keener) has left with their young daughter, and his attempts to find romance with the theater’s ticket girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) and lead actress (Michelle Pfeiffer) are hindered by escalating health problems. At the same time, Caden is launching one of the most ambitious stage productions ever, one that starts to take over his entire life as he becomes obsessed with seeing his daughter and tries capturing the entire experience on stage.

Needless to say, when Charlie Kaufman’s involved in a movie, you know to expect a uniquely unsettling experience, one that examines real life emotions through bizarre and strange circumstances that rarely have any basis in reality. That was certainly the case with the movie about a puppeteer who finds a doorway that allows them to control actor John Malkovich and just as true with “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” This time, Kaufman has taken over the directorial reins himself, and the results may lead some to the realization that Kaufman’s previous collaborators Spike Jones and Michel Gondry had their hands full trying to reel in Kaufman’s moody madness.

To clear up the most obvious question you’re wondering: Yes, “synecdoche” is a real word, and it is meant to be a play on words with the initial location for the movie, Schnectady, New York. No, I do not know what it means nor do I know how it relates to the movie, because to be quite frank, trying to figure it out might hurt my brain even more than the experience of watching the film.

The film’s opening with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at home with his wife and daughter Olive is fairly mundane, but Kaufman’s oddball sense of humor shows up when Olive produces green poo. When a sink explodes, Caden is hit in the head with the faucet and his health starts deteriorating, as does his relationship with his wife–played by Catherine Keener, who can play this kind of role blindfolded–who leaves, taking Olive with her. Things aren’t going much better at Caden’s local community theater where his overly-elaborate productions experience problems, but he gets enthusiastic support from his ticket taker Hazel (Samantha Morton), who clearly has a crush on her boss. The only thing that takes Caden’s mind off his broken family is the fact he’s been given a grant that will allow him to stage one of the greatest plays ever, an epic ensemble piece developed within a warehouse that gets more out of control as he gets new ideas.

In some ways, the movie makes fun of the pretensions of the theater crowd, artists involved in trying to do “important work,” but it’s hard not to think that much like “Adaptation,” the movie is somewhat autobiographical with Caden’s out-of-control production representing Kaufman’s own desire to create something big and epic to meet the expectations of his past work. It also seems to explore every single neuroses that hasn’t been covered in Kaufman’s previous movies, something that doesn’t exactly scream out “feel-good movie of the year.”

Kaufman’s affinity for putting salt in the wound of hapless losers continues, though Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden is a different breed altogether. Hoffman really puts a lot into this role as he yells and cries and goes through convulsions as his body becomes susceptible to all sorts of random diseases and the effects of age as the film covers roughly thirty years in Caden’s life, even though he’s oblivious to the passage of time.

As successful as Caden has been as a theater director, his relationships just haven’t worked out, so he becomes obsessed with the women in his life to the point where they become incorporated into his theater piece. The number of female roles allows Kaufman to bring together some of the best actresses working today including Hope Davis as an egotistical self-help therapist and Michelle Williams as Caden’s lead actress and love interest. The appearance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as the lesbian love of Caden’s ex-wife reminds one of the similar random weirdness of Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” but it just starts getting ridiculous when Diane Wiest shows up to take over the role of Caden, as Caden becomes an actor in his own production.

This aspect of the movie epitomizes how much of the movie seems to be weird merely for the sake of weirdness, as does the house where Hazel lives, which is perpetually ablaze, seemingly just to produce awkward laughter. Otherwise, there are a few cleverly amusing moments, again mainly coming from Kaufman’s eccentric sense of humor, like the in-joke of having Emily Watson show up as an actress playing Samantha Morton’s character, a nod to the fact that many people get the two British actresses confused. This way of thinking ultimately leads to Caden hiring actors to play himself, as well as actors to play the actors playing them, and the movie becomes mired in a nest of Russian dolls as Caden builds an entire city inside the warehouse for his actors to reenact everyday life situations.

By the time the movie gets past the 90 minute mark, you’ll either be lost, confused or just plain frustrated as Kaufman continues to build upon Caden’s increasing obsession with his ex-wife and daughter and the depression that results. While mayhem ensues on the city set, Caden hides out in a make-shift apartment, leading up to possibly the most depressing possible way Kaufman could have ended the movie, one that certainly doesn’t deliver a satisfying pay-off after sitting through two hours of confusion. Some may leave this movie feeling as if seeing it a second time might offer some more enlightenment to what they’ve just witnessed. Rest assured, having seen the movie twice, I can honestly say there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from subjecting oneself to the experience twice.

The Bottom Line:
Who knows from which part of Kaufman’s deranged mind “Synechdoche, New York” came from. It’s certainly signature Kaufman, being as weird and quirky as one might expect, but it’s also far too dreary and depressing to offer very much entertainment value.