Synecdoche, New York Reviews
Not nearly as approachable as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, and that is to its detriment: when you're going to tell a slice-of-life story, there has to be some redemption somewhere, if not for the characters then at the very least, for the viewer, so that s/he doesn't feel like an idiot for sitting through the whole two hours.
This film seems based on a premise that I can't buy into, that being that life is effectively not worth living. It's cynical, but not blackly funny; rather, it's just mean-spirited. The odd thing is that, instead of taking a positive impetus away from it ("I should live my life better, in the way this movie recommends"), I took away a negative one ("Who is this crotchety idiot? I'm going to live my life to the fullest JUST TO SHOW HIM THAT HE'S AN IDIOT).
And there, I guess, is the redemption, the big payoff: I did take something away from this movie. Rather intelligent, but rather indulgent, Synecdoche is as conflicted as all Kaufman works, but less fun to watch than the rest up to this point... even Eternal Sunshine, which I still don't understand... this might be a great film. I didn't feel it, though.
This is a major letdown from kauffman. I've liked all of the films he has written, and the directing on display here is very competent. The problem lies within his script this time around. It really isn't up to his usual caliber, and the film (at 2h 3min.) seemed to drag and was, for lack of a better word, UNPLEASANT.
And look, we all know that Kaufman plays around with narratives that break the fourth wall and the perceptions of reality and all that shit. We loved it in Being John Malkovich, we loved it in Eternal Sunshine, we loved it in Adaptation. Here I could only wonder what's given him the right to put together this narcissistic fantasia of the three, short of 20 million dollars' worth of masturbatory self-interest. I would never decry an auteur for pursuing his personal interests in the cinematic medium and then releasing it for others to indulge in, but it doesn't mean that I automatically have to enjoy or even appreciate the finished product. This plays like Kaufman's Greatest Hits, a movie self-referential in its self-reference and so on until it spirals out into some horrifying Escher pattern. Any third grader can do that. His only true aim in creating Synecdoche, New York was to encompass as many themes and tones and possible and then shield his condemning lack of focus with the umbrella of metafiction. Even the film's grandest conceit, a life-sized copy of New York inside a theater in New York, reflects this, and yet to what end? By the time Kaufman had exhausted his bag of tricks, I had checked out of this tiresome slog, taking nothing from the film except a newfound disdain for these supposedly "clever" narratives. I'm scared to ever watch Adaptation again.
Essentially, Synecdoche says "fuck you I do what I want" to its befuddled audience, and in concept I do admire that temerity. If one thing can be said for the film, it's that it is ambitious. Expecting a viewer to accept, ruminate on, and defend every single aspect of a film where not even the film is interested in defending them just smacks of arrogance to me. The movie is stiflingly arrogant and enamored with itself, and for all the emotional payloads and philosophical mumblings about life it may have tried to put forth, I simply couldn't have cared about any of them.
We compatmentalize and then complain when others do not stay in the pretty little boxes we create for them (and do we realize that we ourselves often escape from our own self inflicted boxes?).
The film blurs the time line and this can be irritating, and yet I suppose true to one's relationship with memories and how they too can change with time and effect how we deal with the here and now.
The first third of this film seems normal enough; a self absorbed playwrite with neurosis aplenty, is at a loss to understand why the "perfect" life he's created for himself - wife and child and a meaningful job in the profession he desires - is unraveling. He seems unequiped to repair his relationship and meekly watches it desolve.
From this point it's all a reflection on who, and why, under the guise of a play he is writing and directing - relationships flitter in and out as memories so often do - and time slips away.
There are many clever inventions at play here, from the very beginning where we see a man on the edges of the action watching - who later becomes the "actor" who portrays the writer. At the end of the film, as an 80 year old cleans his house (how's that for a metaphor?) and then awakens to see how the elaborate set he's created has become filled with grafetti and trash due to neglect, he then relinqushes control of the play (and his life) to others; and in the final scenes picks up an ear piece that tells him what to do and how to act as he comes upon a bit actor in his life who manages to give him compassion - as he rest his head on her shoulder the voice in his ear/head then say, simply, "die" - fade to white.
A film on this type of topic seems impossible to nail to perfection - it simply can't be done, just as defining humanity can't be done - but here Kaufman seems more on the mark and focused than some other efforts.
Certainly a film to discuss and a bit more accessable than the Lynch film (and a whole lot shorter!)
Writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes use of metaphor in a way no other modern american filmmaker is doing, he reaches down into the subconsciousness and pulls up images of human nitemares, fears, phobias and neuroses. By it's own nature, I suppose it's inevitably cynical, but that cynicism eventually brings the movie down a bit. Others might wind up being turned off by last half, as Cotard's play becomes more about his own life and his interaction with the actors of his play, he needs to bring in actors to portray the actors interacting with the actors who are interacting with the actors. Love this film or hate it, it's a work of singular brilliance that isn't seen very often today.
A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse as part of his new play.
Synecdoche, New York is a firecracker display that sets the audience up for a grand epic of adventures then sputters its lovable way through over two hours of loosely connected views of life as we live it - through the eyes of an increasingly physically disabled director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Trying to summarize what the story is and does is always as risky task when it comes to Charlie Kaufman films and the audience for this work will be decidedly separated between the love it or hate it division.
Kaufman manages to address so many issues (marriage, adultery, joblessness, that thin thread of sanity that keeps actors committed to impossibly complex problematic productions, etc) that keeping up with the nonlinear story line is challenging at best. But with a cast of characters as finely portrayed by actors such as Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh et al, the whole crazy film works wonders on the imagination. This is pure entertainment for the sake of entertainment and while Caden Cotard does represent Everyman searching for some semblance of meaning in a universe that makes little sense (except that death is inevitable!), it is the process more than the dialogue that makes this film such a pleasure to follow. Charlie Kaufman has done it again.
It is, however, extremely sad. It's hard for me to explain the plot without taking away so much of the film's magic. You have to see this film twice, three times, four times. It is simply wonderful.
What is it about? I'll tell you. The film is about us. How do we see ourselves? How do we see other people? Can we ever say we truly know ourselves, or our friends, or our spouses, and can we ever be happy knowing that we'll never know everything or everyone. Everyone goes through the same experiences, just in different ways. The specifics of each experience change our perceptions of ourselves and others. In essence, they help create a story to tell about our lives.
I'm not one to care about how much I could follow in Synecdoche, New York. I care about what I took away from the film once the credits rolled. And I can say that I was deeply touched by its message. I loved it and I want to see it again.
Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling 40-year-old theater director trying to find meaning in his beleaguered life. His wife (Catherine Keener) has run off to Germany with his little daughter, Olive. He also manages to botch a potential romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a woman who works in the theater box-office who has an unusual crush on Caden. He's also plagued by numerous mysterious health ailments that only seem to multiply. While his life seems to be in the pits, Caden is offered a theater grant of limitless money. He has big ambitions: he will restage every moment of his whole life to try and discover the hard truths about life and death. Caden must then cast actors to portray the various people in his life. Sammy (Tom Noonan) argues that no other actor could get closer to the truth of Caden; Sammy has been following and studying Caden for over 20 years (don't bother asking why in a movie like this). Caden also casts his new wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), as herself. The theater production gets more and more complex, eventually requiring the "Caden" character to hire his own Caden actor. Caden hires Hazel to be his assistant and Sammy falls in love with her. Caden admonishes his actor, "That Hazel isn't for you." Caden then tries sleeping with "Hazel" (Emily Watson) to get even with the real Hazel. By producing a theatrical mechanism that almost seems self-sustaining, Caden wants to leave his mark on the world and potentially live forever.
I heard plenty of blather about how mind-numbing [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] was and how Kaufman had really done it this time when he composed a script that involves characters playing characters playing characters. People told me that it was all too much to keep track of and that it made their brains hurt. The movie is complex, yes, and demands a viewer to be actively engaged, but the movie is far from confusing and any person or critic that just throws up their hands and says, "Nope, too much to think about," is doing their brain a disservice. The movie is relatively easy to follow in a simple linear cause-effect manner; Kaufman only really goes as deep as two iterations from reality, meaning that Caden has his initial doppelganger and then eventually that doppelganger must get his own Caden doppelganger (it's not nearly as confusing as it sounds if you see it). Now, where the movie might be tricky to understand is how deeply contemplative and metaphorical it can manage to be, especially at its somber close. That doesn't mean that [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] is impossible to understand only that it requires some extra effort to appreciate. But this movie pays off in huge ways on repeat viewings, adding texture to Kaufman's intricately plotted big picture, unfolding into a richer statement about the nature of life and death and love.
Theater has often been an easy metaphor for life. William Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts." Kaufman movies always dwell substantially with the nature of identity, and [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] views identity through the artifice of theater. Caden searches for something brutal and true via the stage, but of course eventually his search for truth becomes compromised with personal interests. Characters in Caden's life are altered and in the end when Caden steps down, as himself, reality starts getting revised The truth is often blurred through the process of interpretation. Caden ends up swapping identities with a bit player in the story of his life, potentially finding a greater sense of personal comfort as someone else. Don't we all play characters in our lives? Don't we all assume different identities for different purposes? Do we act differently at a job than at home, at church than at a bar? Caden remarks that there are no extras in life and that everyone is a lead in his or her own story.
Kaufman's movie is also funny, like really darkly funny and borderline absurdist to the point of being some strange lost work by Franz Kafka (Hazel even mentions she's reading Kafka's [u]The Trial[/u]). You may be so caught up trying to render the complexities of the story to catch all of the humor. The movie exists in a surreal landscape, where the characters treat the fantastic practically as mundane. Hazel's house is constantly on fire and yet none of the characters regard this as dangerous or out of the ordinary. It is just another factor of life. The entire subplot with Hope Davis as a hilariously incompetent therapist is deeply weird. Caden suffers some especially cruel Job-like exploits, particularly what befalls his estranged daughter, Olive. He's obsessed with her hidden whereabouts and European upbringing, to the point that Caden cannot even remember the name of his other daughter he has with Claire. There is a deathbed scene between the two that is equally sad and twisted given the astounding behavior that Caden is forced to apologize for. There are running gags that eventually transform into metaphors, like Caden's many different medical ailments and the unhelpful bureaucratic doctors who know nothing and refuse to divulge any info. Kaufman even has Emily Watson, an actress mistaken for Morton, play the character of "Hazel."
This is Kaufman's debut as a director and I think the movie ultimately benefits by giving its writer more control over the finished product. The movie is such a singular work of creativity that it helps by not having another director; there is no other artistic vision but Kaufman's. While the film can feel slightly hermetic at times visually, Kaufman and cinematographer Frederick Elmes ([i]The Ice Storm[/i]) pack the film with detail. Stylistically, the film is mannered but this is to make maximum impact for the vast amount of visual metaphors. [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] never feels as mannered as the recent Wes Anderson films, henpecked by a style that serves decoration rather than storytelling. The production design for the world-within-a-world is also alluring and imaginative, like a living breathing dollhouse.
The assorted actors do well with their quirky, flawed characters, but clearly Hoffman is the linchpin to the film. He plays a character from middle age to old age, and at every step Hoffman manages to infuse some level of empathy for a man routinely disappointed by his own life. The failed yet lingering and hopeful romance between Caden and Hazel provides an almost sweet undercurrent for a character obsessed with death. Hoffman is convincing at every moment, even as a hobbled 80-year-old man, and gives a performance steeped in sadness but with the occasional glimmer of hope, whether it be the ambition of his theater project or the dream of holding Hazel once more. Morton is also wonderfully kindhearted and endearing as the woman that just seems to keep slipping away from Caden.
There's no other way to say it but [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] is a movie that you need to see multiple times to appreciate. The plot is so grandiose is scope and ambition that one sitting does not do it justice. Kaufman has forged a strikingly peculiar movie that manages to be surreal and bleakly comic while also being poignant and humane. This is a big movie with big statements that can be easily missed, but for those willing to dig into the wealth of metaphor and reflection, [i]Synecdoche, New York[/i] is a rewarding film experience that sticks with you. By the end of this movie, Kaufman has earned the merging of metaphor and narrative. I have already seen the movie twice and still cannot get it out of my thoughts. This isn't the kind of movie that you feel warm affection for, like Kaufman's blissfully profound [i]Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind[/i]. This movie is less a confounding puzzle than an intellectually stimulating examination on art, the human experience, and, ultimately death. If people would rather kill brain cells watching whatever dreck Hollywood secretes every week (cough, [i]Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li[/i], cough) then that's their prerogative. Give me a Charlie Kaufman movie and a bottle of aspirin any day.
Nate's Grade: A[/color][/font]
Some buzz words and terms that might come up in this review: Mind fuck, meta, esoteric, frustrating, confusing, sublime, touching.
Some of the most unique and interesting films of the past decade have been authored by Charlie Kaufman. Here, he both writes and directs a film for the first time, and it too remains a unique experience, which will be accepted by some as wonderful for many reasons and by others as a frustrating mess. I very much enjoyed the film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman leads the cast of character actors in a drama stretching the realms of reality as Caden Cotard, a theater director struggling with his work and the women in his life.
This is a complex plot to attempt to shed light on, but essentially, Conrad has relationship problems and some strange health problems. Despite this, he has been given the chance to make his masterpiece of a play, leading to a life devotion to the creation of a play inside of a warehouse, which will encompass a life size replica of New York, featuring a cast of many all performing as people leading their own lives.
The film also features stellar performances by Catherine Keener, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and Tom Noonan, most as characters within the play.
Caden Cotard: I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't
Many of the screenplays by Kaufman have always had a meta-type element to them, particularly Adaptation. They have also been fairly esoteric. Its for these reasons that this film can be a mixed bag for some. For me, it felt like something that I could really just toy with in my mind for a while.
I'm certainly not the kind of person that will say he "got" everything about this movie, let alone one that thinks that everything has a particular meaning, but I certainly enjoyed wrapping my mind around a lot of the scenes in this movie, and I still am.
It certainly helps that Kaufman has hung around director Spike Jonze long enough to have an eye for making a strange enough film look wonderful as well as the use of Jon Brion to supply a touching score and theme.
The film is deliberately slow paced, but I still sat in wonder for the most part, because what was presented seemed so intriguing and will only enjoy more elements of it on repeated viewings.
Not for everyone, but I found it wonderful.
[acting as Caden]
Sammy: I've told you before, this is not a play about dating, it's about death. Make it personal, move along.
[Caden is trailing behind]
Caden: He doesn't need to yell at them. It is a play about dating. It's not just a play about death. It's about everything - Dating, earth, death, life, family, all that.