November 19, 2008

REVIEW: Synecdoche, New York (?)

In the 10 days or so since seeing Synecdoche, New York, I've found myself mystified while trying to pin down its best moments. Like a dream that you can't clearly remember, it's a movie that you know is special for some reason - even if you can't quite put your finger on it.

I might as well have just described any of Charlie Kaufman's movies, from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Despite some striking similarities in plot and character, his is a collection that mostly defies categorization. Are they comedy, drama, tragedy - all three? His latest offering, Synecdoche, New York, has been long awaited by a rabid Kaufman cult following comprised mostly of people who see themselves in a particular character - or see Kaufman as a sulking writer illustrating his own life. In a recent interview with Colin Covert, however, Kaufman explained, "I want to be careful in drawing parallels between characters I write and myself because people seem to take great pleasure and feel a great confidence in doing that for me. And I kind of at this point am not enjoying it too much."

Fine with me, Charlie.
I mostly go to your movies just to get weirded out for a while.

Synecdoche, New York certainly doesn't waste any time giving your eyebrows a workout. Our protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his distant wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), are two lost souls struggling to remember why they ended up together in the first place. Time as we know it appears to be relative in Caden's world (in the same interview, Kaufman explains: "My experience of time is that the speed at which it moves changes constantly, and certainly gets faster and faster as I get older. There are moments of waking up in the morning and thinking of some event that happened 10 years ago and being incredulous. That understanding of time is represented in the movie."). The majority of the film chronicles Caden's lifelong struggle to write and produce a play representative of his life. This means, of course, that the production won't be complete until Caden dies - a thought that he (and Adele, who leaves him for Germany early on) obsesses over constantly.

On paper it seems like a simple story, and in hindsight it seems like a simple story. But while you're actually watching it, Synecdoche, New York is about as simple as taking a calculus course in Arabic. Despite what you might know before seeing this film (the definition and pronunciation of "synecdoche", for example), you may still lack a significant amount of esoteric knowledge necessary for processing what's going on, such as the signs and symptoms of the disorder known as Cotard's Syndrome. Does this take away from your enjoyment of Synecdoche, New York? Probably, and for most people.

But as much as I was flailing around trying to keep my head above water, I found myself frequently laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like a David Lynch film, the best part about Synecdoche, New York (and most of Kaufman's movies) is the thrill of experiencing what amounts to a lucid dream.
Bizarre metaphorical settings (e.g., a continually burning house) and an incredible job of artificially aging the characters only heighten the surrealism. And if all this goes over your head, or if you're conversely somehow able to easily understand the complexities of Charlie Kaufman's stories, there's always the outstanding acting to appreciate.

As Caden, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns his Self -Loathe-o-Meter to "max", ending up somewhere between his characters in Happiness and Love Liza. There's little doubt Hoffman has moved beyond his years as a supporting actor, though part of me still enjoys him more in tasty bit parts like last year's Charlie Wilson's War. Catherine Keener (who also starred in Being John Malkovich) doesn't bring much new to the table here, but Samantha Morton (In America, Minority Report) shows considerable range playing Caden's muse. Everybody else fills in the gaps with their own memorable moments, but the beating heart of the movie remains with Hoffman, who somehow maintains the semblance of a complete character in this crazy dream.


But a confusing movie doesn't necessarily equal a brilliant movie. In fact, the inaccessibility of much of the material on first viewing prevents the viewer from connecting with the intense emotions playing out on screen, particularly in Hoffman's character. It's like anonymously eavesdropping on a stranger's therapy sessions. With time, however, and in the case of this movie with multiple viewings, you might find yourself fully immersed in this person's world. I probably won't find out until I see it again, but in the meantime I'm happy with Synecdoche, New York as a break from the formulaic norm.

On the other hand, writing about it made me feel exactly like one of Kaufman's struggling playwrights. Maybe that was the point. I haven't read any reviews of Synecdoche, New York but I've witnessed a number of bloggers having fits while trying. Add me to the list, I suppose.

And Charlie Kaufman says he doesn't relate to his characters...

Writing - ?
Acting - ?
Production - ?
Emotional Impact - ?
Music - ?
Social Significance - ?

Total: ??/??= ??% = ? (Take that, Kaufman!)

...alright, alright. 90%, A-.


  1. Ha, love the "Take that, Kaufman!" at the end.

    Seriously, I'm so looking forward to seeing this. It's playing only one day a week in two or three theaters, so I haven't been able to even consider it, but I'm going to try and see it as soon as possible.

  2. Totally loved this film, it is a simple story and it is difficult to explain and pin point why you liked it so much. I just know I did.

  3. Hehe, thanks, K. I figured if there was any movie that deserved such a grade, this was it. But for sheer originality and production alone, it's one of the best films of the year, even if I won't realize that until five years from now after I've seen it more than once.

    Well I'm sure you were a lot more eloquent than me, Nick. Now I have to catch up on everyone's reviews...

  4. I like your comparison to a Lynchian dream. Lynch's are more fantastically nightmarish, but they require the same handling I think. Like a dream, you just have to let them take you where they will.

    In the case of SNY, it sounds like I dug it a bit more than you, or at least I was more anxious to take a specific stand on it, but a lot of our impressions are very much the same.

    I also felt a bit of an emotional remove for a lot of the film that held it back a little. It got me in the end, but it was rough going.

    What does it all mean? I'm not sure, but I look forward to puzzling over it some more.

  5. " a confusing film does not necessarily make a brilliant film."

    Or words like that. Yes, Daniel you do make an excellent point there, but there's no doubt that everyone's reactions come from within, and people have been all over the map with this. I'm in agreement with Nick and Craig (and Alexander) and have tried my own hand at a review. I must admit though that this film has stayed with me in a persuasive way. It keeps you thinking, and pondering and debating, and this is usually the sign of great cinema at hand.

    I love the use of those question marks!

    My apologies for seeing to be absent at this fabulous site as of late, but I am not a big Bond fan, especially with the latest installments and I am loathe to evince disagreement or contraian opinions with you of all people. I am happy to be back today to read your refreshing candor.

  6. I don't think you liked it more than me so much as you may have understood it more than me, Craig. The two shouldn't necessarily depend on each other (Lynch, for example), but in this case I think you and others are maybe ahead of me in getting to the best and deepest parts of SNY. It's definitely worth a rewatch, though I don't know if I'll do it again in the theater with everything else currently out.

    Sam, any visit from you is certainly appreciated, and no need to apologize. Even I've been absent half of the time from here (and from WitD, where I have to avoid your reviews until a month later when I can see the movies myself!). Nobody should ever be made feel they have to comment on every post anyway!

    I know all four of you have written stunning recommendations of SNY, and anybody looking for a complete review (compared to my stumbling thoughts) should check any of them out.

  7. Love you "Arabic Calculus" analogy.

    You act as though you copped out, but I notice that you slapped an "a's" label for it. Does that mean that you really have made up your mind, at least somewhat, but that you just didn't want to give out numerical grades?

    I too wish I could see it again before reviewing it. I'm sure I'm in the same boat as you.

  8. Pretty much, but in the fine print at the end I gave it a 90% A-, taking a couple points away for emotional impact (like I said, I was too confused for parts of it to really "get into it") and social significance (as big of a production as it was, I think it was still singularly focused on this one, strange character that few people can relate to. Even those who did get probably can't take away THAT much of it to apply to their daily life).

    Well I know you're a big Eternal Sunshine fan, so I'm curious as to what you'll end up preferring in the long run. I think ESSM had a bit more relevancy to people in love and in relationships, whereas SNY appeals to the introspective dreamers. Just my guess.

  9. Haha, this is a funny, fascinating review, Daniel. Your description of how you struggled to stay above the water while laughing all the while at the absurdity of the picture is tremendous. Great job here! Love the question marks.

  10. Hehe, thanks, Alexander. Let's just say I took the "review-lite" route for this one. I figured it's a hard enough movie to understand, why make the review any more confusing? I'm off to read yours...

  11. "In the 10 days or so since seeing Synecdoche, New York, I've found myself mystified while trying to pin down its best moments. Like a dream that you can't clearly remember, it's a movie that you know is special for some reason - even if you can't quite put your finger on it."


    I think this film is one of the best of the year, as in top 2 for me right now. So I think I liked it more than you did, but that paragraph aboves perfectly summarizes how I felt about it. Nice job.

  12. Well I could only speak for myself, Matt - a lot of other people did just fine in capturing their thoughts on SNY!

    Wow, top 2 is really way up there, especially considering you've possibly seen more new releases this year than anyone else. I think I'd have to see it again to figure if I really liked it or disliked it, but about all I know is that it succeeded in its ambition, so yeah, it deserves the praise its received.

  13. I don't know abut that...I've seen 118 new releases this year so far...and I still feel behind. Is that bad?

  14. You're ridiculous.

    Actually I don't even know what my count is. I should probably know. I'd guess it might be that high by year's end.

    What's average for movie freaks like us? I don't know...

  15. I count 70 films seen in the theater so far this year - with 68 reviewed so far.

    I don't have time for more than 100...

  16. Wow, I just did a quick and dirty count based on my archived posts and I think I'm already over 100 new releases, and there have been at least 5-10 movies that I haven't reviewed. So I guess that just makes me insane.

  17. See Daniel? Maybe I'm not so crazy after all. ;-)

  18. You may not be, but I'm pretty sure I am.


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