Review: Synecdoche, New York Will Leave You Confused, But Possibly Changed, Too

"Synecdoche, New York is either the most glorious failure ever to be projected onto a screen, or the most beautiful depiction of human frailty, emotional weakness, and inevitable decay captured on celluloid."

 

In Synechdoche, New York, the directorial debut of celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, time and a few other laws of nature seem to have little bearing on how protag Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) experiences his life. Doubles of characters appear, other characters manifest themselves in alternate bodies, and some don't even age. To pay homage to this fractured jigsaw puzzle of self-reflection by an artist, I've opted to review the movie in a similar fashion.

Cut to:

Caden, poking at one of his bowel movements, convinced there's blood in his stool. Convinced he's somehow dying, desperate to find the evidence. Caden is, like all life, in a constant state of decay -- except he's constantly aware of it.

Cut to:

Caden, a decade later, trying to get off the ground a play so big it requires an arena the size of several airfields. After his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), left him for disappointing her, taking their four-year-old daughter to Berlin, the playwright won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant and, after years of directing others plays, decides to stage an original piece with the goal of replicating everyday life, his life, the lives of everyone he comes into contact with, because, he realizes, everyone is the star of their own lives. No one is an extra on this planet.

Cut to:

Me, slouched in my seat at a screening room off Sunset Blvd. Confused. Wondering if anyone else in the room has any idea what they're watching.

Cut to:

Me, earlier this year. Watching Federico Fellini's 8 ½ for the second time in two years. This movie is brilliant, a tangential dreamlike depiction of the film director's artistic process. If I could shift through time like a Kaufman movie, I would realize I would be watching a movie called Synecdoche, New York six months later and that Synecdoche would be a tangential dreamlike depiction of an artist's, any artist's, process.

Cut to:

1999, the year Kaufman blew filmgoers away with Being John Malkovich. Three years later he would scribe Adaptation, then two years later deliver one of the truest onscreen representations of memory and, specifically, how we love, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar).

Cut to:

Caden, an old man. His play still hasn't got a name. It still hasn't debuted. His vast theatrical space has been filled with a recreation of the city outside. In it, an actor plays him. The actress who he hired to play his wife is now married to him, still playing his wife. Another actress plays the love of his life, who works as his personal assistant; since he can't have his assistant, he sleeps with the actress. Reality and fiction blur, life becomes art and art becomes life.

Cut to:

The credits rolling. The dude beside me is sobbing. I mean, sobbing hard. He also smells like he jogged to the screening room, a fact that repeatedly yanked me out of the movie. I wonder why he was hit so hard by the ending, but then it hits me. I get teary-eyed, too. Synecdoche, New York is either the most glorious failure ever to be projected onto a screen, or the most beautiful depiction of human frailty, emotional weakness, and inevitable decay captured on celluloid.

Cut to:

Audiences in art houses around America. Confused. Maybe sobbing. Probably walking out. Wondering just how many times they'll have to see Synecdoche, New York before it unravels itself to possibly reveal the mysteries of the universe. Or at least one very brilliant, very dysfunctional screenwriter's mind.

Cut to:

Me, submitting this review to my editors.

Cut to:

My editors reading this review, scratching their heads, debating whether or not it's time to tell me my services are no longer needed.

Grade: B+ (with the caveat that I expect my grade to change dramatically with every viewing)