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Review: "Synecdoche, New York"

6394poster For its first 20 or so minutes, Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning, mind-bending screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, appears to be a meditation on death. We first meet its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while he's lying in bed listening to a radio talk show host prattle on about the arrival of fall is a metaphor for the arrival of death.

"I don't feel well," Caden informs his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) over breakfast, but she's too busy minding their young daughter to pay him much attention. A visit to the doctor reveals something may in fact be wrong with Caden physically, and he's soon sprouting pustules all over his body.

Photo_10_hires Meanwhile, during a session with their marriage counselor, Adele reveals she has fantasized about her husband beind dead. And the play Caden is currently directing? Death of a Salesman.

Hovering at the edges of all this are fleeting elements of the surreal (like Caden showing up in a cartoon his daughter watches on TV) that seem to signal Synecdoche, New York is building towards a fantasia about a man confronting his own mortality. But that turns out to be far too limited a description for Kaufman's ultimate ambition.

Photo_01_hires I cannot properly tell you what Synecdoche, New York is about, because even after seeing the film, I haven't a clue. What I can definitely and conclusively say is that although I did not exactly enjoy watching the movie - it has maddeningly tedious and repetitive stretches - I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, either.

Kaufman, of course, has never colored inside the lines as a screenwriter (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But this movie makes those earlier pictures seem like the work of someone who was just getting warmed up. On the surface, Synecdoche, New York tells the story of what happens to Caden (and the various women in his life) after Adele leaves him, he receives a MacArthur Grant and devotes himself to creating a "massive theater piece" that will be uncompromising and honest.

But the movie, which gradually departs from all traditional logic and reality, is not what about happens next, but what it makes you contemplate as you're watching it. The more you ruminate on Synecdoche, New York - which starts folding into itself as Caden's play consumes his life (and everyone in it) - the more resonance you find in it.

Photo_16_hires Kaufman is grappling with big themes usually reserved for dense literature: the meaning of life, its sadness and tragedy, the devices and traps we use to manipulate, get along with, or simply tolerate other people. The movie is overstuffed with ideas, many of them visual (like the house of one of the characters, which is always on fire, yet no one ever mentions is - the elephant in the room), and it is improbably - no, impossible, to take them all in with one viewing.

Kaufman doesn't care: This is not that kind of movie. Synecdoche, New York defies simple description, and I can't say, after seeing it once, it is entirely successful. But despite my fidgeting and occasional watch-checking during my first viewing, I'm looking forward to seeing it again, when I suspect a few of its teasing, beguiling mysteries will become a little clearer. But just a few. And only a little. You have never seen a movie quite like this one.


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Fresh DopeBoy

It is very difficult to conceive of a movie much more complex than synecdoche. Yet, oddly, I have no desire to see it again just so that I might resolve something. Not because I disliked it, but because so many scenes were indelibly imprinted within my mind such that I “get it”. That is, I “get it” as much as can be expected. My first impression as the movie started was that “dialogue” was the entertainment. Actually, for this reason (i.e., dialogue), I would see this movie again. However, because the dialogue heightened my awareness of the same, it became easily perceptible when dialogue began to yield its place to various “prop devices” as the centerpiece of entertainment. I’m not necessarily using the phrase “prop devices” as disapproval because we sometimes present ourselves as silly when we, for example, indicate that such and such should not exist or should be replaced by such and such. In many cases, we would have then simply created “another movie”. In this case, maybe we should make our own movie. That’s when some of us would realize just how difficult it is to actually make one of these things. Some of the devices (literary or cinematographic) used by Kaufman were stunning or spectacular! For example, the “voice” of Adele’s (Cotard’s wife played by Catherine Keener) miniature paintings, and the paintings themselves, were used to great effect. The creation of a “New York within New York” presents very interesting and creative cinematography. The work (make-up, costume, and lighting) performed to create the illusion of aging characters is also very well done. And while the seemingly non-stop, nested twists and turns might make one dizzy, it is just this unexpected variety that provided a journey instead of just another movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to deliver. I found his performance to be communicative and almost accessible to the touch, as one is almost unaware that he is acting. This gives us the feeling that we know him. We then become comfortable with him, and finally empathetic.

This movie comes at you in layers of interwoven humanness. Every message invited the audience to think about themselves, their families, their lives, their legacy, their meaning, and their relationships. Caden Cotard (main character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was chronically, and strangely ill. There was a scene where Cotard, after receiving permission from his wife Adele, urinated in a sink while his wife and young daughter were both present in the room (present, but not watching). His urine appeared to be mostly blood yet he offered no reaction at all and simply carried on as if the absurd had become the expected. His sickness seemed to symbolize the loneliness that is concomitant with the very individuality necessary in order to qualify as an autonomous human being. If we die alone, are we in fact alone? Of course, this movie is about much more than that. No doubt, most of the criticism of this movie will be that it is far too ambitious. But what do we want? Do we want movies that only fit within our conventional range of pace, dialogue, boundaries, and cinematography? It seems that conventional movies will continue to appear with great frequency so, they will be readily available, but movies like Synecdoche are rare. Nevertheless, there were quite a few things that I did not like. While Phillip Seymour Hoffman very convincingly depicted the kind of leg tremors that might be caused by neuropathy, I found his enactment of a seizure to be so unconvincing that I actually laughed aloud. Interestingly enough, there was a gentleman one row up and about 10 seats to my right, who clearly did not like my idea of “funny”. – Although one got the strong impression that the gentleman expected everyone within 200 feet of him to “synchronize” with his idea of good comedic timing, as he outscored us all with his use of laughter aloud -- And that is one of the effects of the complexity of this film; that is, though this film might be easily regarded as “despairing”, there were many funny moments where laughter erupted even while surrounded by loss and brokenness; just like real life. Sometimes, though, brilliance might not be brilliance; sometimes it just might be simple depravity disguised as something intellectual and modern. For example, while I love Tom Noonan’s work in most everything he does, I did not like Kaufman’s wording of his character’s pitch to play Cotard. – Obviously, this “play” is not a real play, but a montage of a construct that represents the mind, fears, and philosophies of Cotard. While I would prefer dialogue that allows for the existence of things like intellectualism, the intelligentsia, modernity, and the avant-garde without requirement for homosexual references, don’t mistake my preference for a suggestion that anything should be changed in this movie. Since Cotard was not homosexual, parts of the movie seem to suggest it par for the course that all men somehow contend with homosexuality. This is not true. This is the movie that Charlie Kaufman wanted to make. No one can say that it should be anything other than what it is. I doubt that any of us will agree on much regarding this movie, as we don’t agree on much regarding life.

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