Of second childishness and mere oblivion: Synecdoche, NY ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 15, 2008)

Time – He’s waiting in the wings
He speaks of senseless things
His script is you and me boys

-David Bowie

“Did you see their faces?” my friend stage-whispered to me as we shuffled up the aisle toward the movie theater’s exit. “Yes,” I answered, staring glumly at my shoes, “I did.”

He was referring to the ashen-faced patrons with thousand-yard stares who remained pinned to their seats, following a Sunday matinee showing of Synecdoche, New York. “Well,” I deadpanned, in a halfhearted attempt to lighten the mood, “Should we just go outside now and throw ourselves under the nearest bus?” My friend appeared to actually be weighing the pros and cons for a moment. “What do you say we grab some pizza instead?” he finally countered. We decided on the pizza. After all, it was only a movie.

Well, technically, it was only a movie about a theater director whose life is only a play. Or was it? Who were all these players, strutting and fretting about their two hours upon the movie screen? Were they just a Fig Newton of someone’s overactive imagination? And why didn’t the “play” in the film ever have an audience?

Maybe we should ask the guy who wrote and directed it (I just happen to have Charlie Kaufman right here, under my desk on Floor 7 ½). Mr. Kaufman, what was that you once said about third acts?

 I don’t know what the hell a third act is.

 -Charlie Kaufman

 Oh. You’re not helping (I’ve got a review to write here, and deadline is fast approaching). If you are just joining us (and wondering when the hell the review is going to start) we’re talking about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who, with his stubbornly insistent anti-multiplex sensibility and a resultant propensity for penning feverishly bizarre, densely oblique narratives (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has become a hot property in cult/art house filmdom, and The Guy Everybody Wants To Work With (For Scale).

Now someone has gone and given Kaufman a director’s chair, and the result is the most simultaneously brilliant and maddeningly indecipherable character study since (dare I say it?) Berlin Alexanderplatz (though the running time is 13 hours shorter).

First, let’s get something out of the way, regarding the film’s unpronounceable, Spell-check challenged title. “Synecdoche” is Kaufman’s cryptic nom de plume for Schenectady, a real town in upstate New York. Even though I briefly lived in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, I’m afraid I cannot shed any light on the significance of the title (maybe Kaufman couldn’t come up with a clever misspelling for Massapequa?). Okay, I’m being a wee bit facetious; according to the dictionary, it means:

 ..a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man.

Get it? Got it. Good. Er-let’s move on to the synopsis portion of this “review”, shall we?

Philip Seymour Hoffman eats up the screen five ways from Sunday as Caden Cotard, a struggling regional theater director from Schenectady who gets a shot at  mounting his magnum opus on the Great White Way after scoring a  “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Obsessed with “keeping it real”, Caden ambitiously leases a huge Manhattan warehouse, and literally constructs a theatrical version of his life, replete with life-sized reproductions of the places he has lived and a large ensemble cast to portray himself and all the people he has known.

Lest you assume this is “Rocky on Broadway”, two things: a) This was written by Charlie Kaufman, and b) Something that John Lennon once observed- “Genius is pain.”

Caden has his fair share of pain, physical and emotional. He suffers from an unknown malady that is systematically destroying his autonomic functions. His first wife (Catherine Keener) has left him (with their daughter) to pursue a career as an artist in Germany, where her myopic paintings (so tiny that they require  magnifying goggles for viewing) have won her accolades.

Caden has remarried, to one of his leading ladies (Michelle Williams), but things aren’t going so well. His therapist (Hope Davis) is too self-absorbed and preoccupied with marketing her self-help books to offer him any counsel. The only woman in his life that seems to understand him is his personal assistant (Samantha Morton) with whom he develops a complex, long-standing, (mostly) platonic relationship.

As dark as this film is, Kaufman seems to be having fun with the Chinese Box aspect of Caden’s completely self-referential, decades-long production. The very concept of an ongoing stage piece, presented in “real time”, as a metaphor for someone’s ongoing life brings up a lot of existential questions, like, how do you “rehearse” reality? Don’t you have to be psychic?

Kaufman’s narrative idea recalls some of Andy Warhol’s experiments, like his 1963 film, Sleep, a five hour epic depicting someone sleeping for five hours. Some people called it genius, others a snore (sorry).

Synecdoche, New York may or may not be a work of genius, but it is anything but a snore, thanks to a brilliant cast. Hoffman remains one of the most amazing actors of his generation. The ensemble holds an embarrassment of riches; in addition to the aforementioned, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh bring their formidable skills to the table as well.

If you’re like me, you may not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of all that commences during the course of this astounding 2-hour mind fuck, but you’ll love the pizza afterwards (…in fair round belly with good capon lined).

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