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Synecdoche, New York
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by Erik Childress

"Are You A God...'No'...Then DIE!"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Ever since Charlie Kaufmann showed us that it was possible to get inside the head of John Malkovich, critics and audiences alike have probably wondering what it might like to be to spend a day inside his. What a fascinating, dark place it must be with an abyss of fanciful possibilities and learned guesses into the collective experience we share called life. His screenplays are fables, melding everyday worries into the discoveries of a realm outside the molds of everyday fiction. Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind rank with little argument amongst the best screenplays of this century. (Top ten for my quick list.) For them he melded with the perfect directors for the time in Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry; visual stylists who had no problems in grasping the complex and unusual storytelling pastiche that Kaufmann puts onto the page. Now he’s behind the camera himself directing his own screenplay in a move that is more than just a debut. It’s an intricate piece to the puzzle of self-examination that began when he invented a twin brother in Adaptation and continues into one of the most challenging, exasperating and beautiful works to hit theaters since probably Eternal Sunshine.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director mounting a version of Death of a Salesman, cast with young actors in the middle-aged roles. At home he’s developing signs of illness and the symptoms appear to be following him everywhere; on television and even the newspaper where he mistakenly believes Harold Pinter has died when he’s really just received the Nobel Prize. When his home plumbing literally explodes and hits him in the head, he goes to one doctor after another fearing its just the first step towards a euroligist. It’s hard to even explain it to his young daughter without her getting scared and his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), reveals she’s fantasized about his death to their shrink, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), who is too busy pawning off her own books to truly hear their problems.

At work, box office clerk Hazel (Samantha Morton) is crushing badly and not so secretly on Caden. He can’t help but be flattered and certainly wants to act but remains faithful to the wife that packs up for Europe with their child for an art show, only to never return. What seems like a week to Caden actually is several months and with time slipping away more exponentially he embarks on a grandiose theater project involving hundreds of actors to recreate the city life he has come to known. Or more specifically, his own life, with actors playing the people all around him. Replicas are built on a giant sound stage. His Linda Loman, Claire (Michelle Williams) will become his not-so-significant other in and out of the show while the mysterious Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) who has followed the real Caden a good portion of his real life jumps at the chance to play the fake Caden, feeling that he knows the man better than Caden himself.

That’s only the tip of the metaphorical and paradoxical iceberg that Kaufman is creating for his audience where time stands still for nobody and the only thing he spells out for us is that “we’re all the star of our own movie.” That revelation comes upon Caden late in the film but is itself just another placation for comfort since every film must eventually come to an end. Long before Synecdoche’s final moment though, Kaufman’s vision will challenge audiences, some to the point of utter surrender and ironically muttering that life is too short to be spent on puzzles like this; a realization I came to years ago about the work of David Lynch. Viewers aware of Kaufman’s distortion of reality - from entering an actor’s head for a Warhol-allotted period to a genre changing before our eyes once the more mainstream amalgamation of the story’s adaptor is asked to help to fighting the erasure of memories someone asked for – will not see someone literally buying a burning house as anything out of whack in Synecdoche.

See it as the choking passion of one character or the fear of becoming a single homeowner, but nothing no matter how trivial can be taken for granted as it will find a way to become a part of Caden’s world by the end. His maladies, shown through discolored urine, pus-filled postules and even poop, are off-putting enough to distract us from paying attention to the dates on display and Caden’s own lost track of time, visualized more dramatically in seeing his daughter grow up away from his eyes and manifesting a father’s worst fears during those teenage years, which he’s completely missed. It’s not the way he would have casted this particular part and the control he seeks through his ultimate masterpiece would make James Stewart in Vertigo rethink his obsession.

Hitchcock was an artist who frequently referred to treating his actors like “cattle” and that “in feature films the director is God” and “in documentary films God is the director.” The real life that Caden is trying to create with his work reflects the power that comes with the job, but even Lord on the director’s chair throne cannot account for the free will his actors possess when their part doesn’t play out to their liking. One doppelganger too many and you may have already checked out of Synecdoche for good, but step away from the ledge for a moment and you’ll recognize that apart from the everyday darkness and despair there is at its heart a quirky human comedy and a truly beautiful love story lurking out there for everyone to digest. Hoffman and Morton are both brilliant here as the polluted water and fire, each making it harder for the other to act upon their own feelings by never finding the right time to communicate whether it be on the set, on the phone or during sex. Even when one finds the happiest night of their life the other finally is smothered by the love they’ve sought for their entire life.

In the tragicomedy of life, timing is everything and Charlie Kaufman is Father Time himself. His scripts require such a delicacy in balancing the emotions and plotting with the absurdity that its some kind of miracle that Kaufman’s debut as God would not only be as detailed as a three-dimensional photomosaic but so carefully structured for audiences to doubleback on the fantastical plotting without losing their way. You may not get every nuance your first way through (it’s near impossible) but I suspect a regular yearly revisit back to it will unveil a new piece about yourself as much as it gives up another of its own secrets. I’ve seen the film twice now, looking forward to my third and anxiously anticipating the same reaction I had to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige whose mysteries become richer each time. The reinvention of ourselves through age, social interaction, sexual identity or simply moving away will always be an enigma to the viewers of our life while our core being remains the same through the looking glass. Hopefully Charlie Kaufman will never feel the need to completely reinvent his work and just continue to find new ways to explore it; becoming its own doppelganger in appearance and ignoring accusations of self-aggrandizing and overreaching any artistic grasp. His inner demons are the same as ours and we only have so much time to understand them. Thank God that we live in the time of Charlie Kaufman.

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originally posted: 10/24/08 15:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/01/11 brian First act darkly hilarious, second act too long, third act too ponderous...but a must-see. 4 stars
9/21/10 Karamashi Challenging but fucking brilliant. 5 stars
6/22/09 Kazelzbq Hi webmaster! muh 2 stars
4/19/09 Meathead Haven't seen it, but loved "Sunshine." Your review has me thinking. 4 stars
4/07/09 Baloney As interwoven with directorial identity as Fellini's 8 1/2. Love that quixotic Kaufman. 5 stars
1/05/09 thejames Good to see creative films being made 5 stars
11/04/08 denny very interesting; thoughtful 4 stars
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  24-Oct-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Mar-2009


  DVD: 10-Mar-2009

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