Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

Some movies just seem too weird to explain. One might look at “Synecdoche, New York” and see a catastrophe: a giant, aimless muddle of a motion picture. But look closer and you’ll see something that’s giant, aimless, and nothing short of masterful.

Of course it’s confusing, and of course it’s amazing. “Synecdoche, New York” is the latest work by none other than Charlie Kaufman. While he’s no stranger to writing, “Synecdoche” is his directorial debut.
The film is about an odd theater director from Synecdoche, New York named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Caden is a theater director who also happens to be a raging hypochondriac, a man who believes that his whole life is constantly determined by death. He visits doctor upon doctor, hoping possibly for the diagnosis that’ll put him out of his misery.
Because of his constant self-inflicted suffering, Caden’s painter wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), heads of to Berlin with their four-year-old daughter. In his loneliness, Caden has a series of affairs and then creates an overly ambitious autobiographical play in a Manhattan warehouse which contains a massive replica of Manhattan.
With this towering set piece, which ultimately becomes the film, “Synecdoche, New York” becomes a story, within a story, within a story. This sort of mind-numbing self-reflexivity might just beat out the scene in Kaufman’s previous “Being John Malkovich” in which John Malkovich enters his own mind.
“Synecdoche” contains the kind of role that Hoffman was born to play, and he masters quite perfectly. In the first half of the film, he portrays Caden as a hilariously self-destructing mess. In the second half, as Caden ages, he tones this down a bit and turns him into a much more sad, mournful, and lonely figure. Hoffman is considered one of the best actors around today because he has the ability to not only bring a character to life, but make them three dimensional as well.
“Synecdoche” proves Kaufman as not just a rare talent, but as an auteur in the truest sense of the word. Not only can he write, but he can direct.
Kaufman’s directing style seems heavily focused on the surroundings, and making every little background detail come together to somehow actually become a part of the character’s mind. This makes sense as Kaufman seems most interest in exploring the weirdest innermost depths of the human psyche. What he seems to be looking for is what it is exactly that evokes certain strange feelings and desires. What’s most incredibly mind-bending about the film is how much Caden’s play begins to resemble, and then become, Caden’s own life. It is not merely confusing to the audience, but even to Caden himself.
“Synecdoche” is both a saddening tale of a depressed man and an affirming outlook on the meaning of life. A late monologue by a minister, one of the deepest and most moving in film history, shows Kaufman’s real message: life is too short to just be miserable all of the time. We all feel miserable inside, but why drag everyone down with us?
This film shows Kaufman as one of the most inventive directors working today. Somebody else could’ve told this story, but nobody would’ve done it with the confused complexity that Kaufman infuses into it.
“Synecdoche, New York” reminded me not just of Kaufman’s other mind warps such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but also a little bit David Lynch, and even a little Woody Allen, in their finest forms.
I can’t say I totally got everything about “Synecdoche, New York” after just one viewing. Then again, every great movie shouldn’t be totally understood after one viewing. Here is a film that I’m happy to say I’m eager to watch again.
If You Liked this Movie, You’ll also Like: Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Contempt, A Serious Man, American Beauty, Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive