- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f you thought Woody Allen was the biggest paranoid hypochondriac in Hollywood, you’ve clearly never seen anything by Charlie Kaufman. The Academy Award-winning writer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and “Being John Malkovich” might be a bit of a head case, but he’s also freaking brilliant. That’s the trouble behind his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” a character-driven dramedy with an amazing concept that’s easy to appreciate, but impossible to judge after only one viewing. Some will call it the best film of the year, and others will call it the worst, but in truth, the movie is such a mixed bag that while it does feature some pretty mind-bending material, it never attains the same greatness that his other scripts enjoyed under more experienced directors.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a small-time theater director who lives with his artist wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), in Schenectady, New York. His latest staging of Death of a Salesman is a big hit, but when his wife makes a permanent move to Germany with their daughter, Caden is left to obsess over a series of health concerns that he believes to be slowly killing him. When he’s awarded the MacArthur genius grant, however, Caden decides to mount an experimental theater piece worthy of the fellowship’s prestige. After renting a warehouse in the middle of New York City and employing hundreds of actors, Caden decides to stage an ongoing portrayal of his life. He casts current wife Claire (Michelle Williams) to play herself, and a man named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) – who just so happens to have been following Caden around for the last 20 years – as himself. Of course, now that Sammy is a part of his life, Caden must then cast an actor to play the actor, and so forth and so on until his increasingly complex play becomes an overblown production that no one will probably ever see.
The real question is whether or not that even matters. “Synecdoche, New York” has so much to say that it’s almost impossible not to get something out of the movie, but it also depends on how you interpret it. Diehard fans will deconstruct every single detail of the film, but a majority of the audience will just struggle with comprehending why they’re supposed to enjoy a movie that is, at its core, about death. The term synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for the part – which is to say that the character of Caden represents the entire human race, just as his fictional New York City is only meant to reflect the life of a single person. Under that theory, we’re all just a bunch of depressed paranoids waiting to die. I’d like to think that there’s more to the film than that, but the truth of the matter is that unless you’re really perceptive, you’re not going to come to any other conclusion until you’ve seen the movie a second time.
It always amazes me the quality of actors that Kaufman’s films attract, but it’s a good thing they do, because the writer’s complex style of storytelling demands the very best from those who are bringing his stories to life. Philip Seymour Hoffman has built a career playing guys just like Caden, and his performance here is nothing short of spectacular. The rest of the cast is almost exclusively made up of ladies, and of that group, Samantha Morton stands out as the best of the bunch. Her character’s relationship with Caden is not only the most interesting, but she’s also the only one who’s properly developed throughout the course of the story. Michelle Williams isn’t given very much to do other than to look sad and depressed, while Catherine Keener has played the Bohemian wife so many times that the only reason her character is memorable is because she plays such an integral part in the story. Emily Watson and Diane Wiest also appear in supporting roles, but their screen time is so limited that they’re unable to make a lasting impression.
“Synecdoche, New York” may be a lot like Kaufman’s other films in tone, but his latest maze of paranoia makes them look like child’s play in comparison. That probably has something to do with the fact that he’s also directing, and as such, had much more wiggle room to embrace his inner eccentric. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily for the better, however, because even though Kaufman’s concept is one of his best yet, the film probably would have benefited in the hands of another director like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. Kaufman has so many ideas that he wants to get onto the screen that his movie becomes more and more like Caden’s play the further along it gets. Thankfully, it never spills into absurdity in quite the same way, because while “Synecdoche, New York” does have its problems, the questions it poses are so much more interesting that it’s well worth the headache.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
There are some movies that just aren’t built to produce the kind of bonus material we’re accustomed to seeing, but credit Sony Classics Pictures for putting together an impressive collection of extras for the Blu-ray release of Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. Though not quite a making-of featurette, “In and Around Synecdoche, New York” discusses the different components of the film (from the complex script to set design and make-up), while Philip Seymour Hoffman chats about his character in more detail on “The Story of Caden Cotard.” Also included is a roundtable discussion with film bloggers like Glenn Kenny and Karina Longworth (“Infectious Diseases in Cattle”) and an “Inside the Actors Studio”-esque interview with Kaufman that is moderated by writer Toby Jones. It all adds up to just further intellectual babble about the film, but fans couldn’t (and wouldn't) ask for more.