Film review – Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

There aren’t many writers working in film who have achieved the auteur status that is usually reserved for directors, but Charlie Kaufman is one of them. Audiences know to expect a Kaufman film to explore issues of identity and reality, to contain offbeat humour, to challenge the conventions of film narrative and to be filled with strange yet empathetic characters. With Synecdoche, New York Kaufman not only writes but also, for the first time, directs and the result is a film that is more Kaufmanesque than ever. Synecdoche, New York doesn’t reach the heights of the Spike Jonze directed films Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, and it doesn’t even come close to the masterpiece that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry), but it is an intriguing puzzle of a film about regret, memories, aging and façades.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a neurotic regional theatre director whose life is falling apart. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden looses himself in a massive piece of experimental theatre where he builds an entire city inside a warehouse and fills it with actors to play constructed versions of all the people he has ever met. As the years go by he eventually even casts an actor to play himself.

Kaufman is very much a modern existentialist and Synecdoche, New York is his most pronounced expression yet of the human condition being fundamentally about despair. Caden, like many Kaufman protagonists, is obsessed by disease, death and aging, and his inability to express himself adequately means that he never achieves success professionally or personally. One of the core ideas in Synecdoche, New York is that Caden is so absorbed in creating his theatrical extravaganza, which is a complete artifice of real life, that he does not notice huge chunks of time passing by. It is a very bleak metaphor for how fast our lives pass us by while we are wrapped up in playing the parts we feel are allocated to us.

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Synecdoche, New York is perhaps overly ambitious as it has trouble sustaining interest in the second half and there are a few too many elements thrown together, many of which are fun ideas but they don’t contribute to the film as a whole. While it is a film clearly operating within dream logic and therefore free from traditional narrative constraints, it still would have benefited from more overall cohesion. Even when they are at their most surreal, filmmakers such as David Lynch, Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel always embedded their films with an emotional truth that is not always present in Synecdoche, New York. Nevertheless, for all its bewildering elements it does end on an inexplicably moving note, leaving you with the sensation that you did just experience something significant.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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4 Responses to Film review – Synecdoche, New York (2008)

  1. Paul Martin says:

    Nice review, Thomas. I think of Michel Gondry, who co-wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Kaufman. They are both good writers, but neither has really proved themselves as directors. Good ideas, yes, but their execution brings mixed results. Synecdoche starts with promise but, as you point out, can’t maintain it through the second half. It kind of blathers on much longer than necessary and the viewer slowly loses interest with the lack of dramatic coherence. I found myself just wanting to finish, which sounds like a cruel comment, because I do think it’s worth seeing. It is a little disappointing, however.

  2. Paul Martin says:

    A bit of self-correction is in order. Actually, Michel Gondry also directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an excellent film. I think SNY is a very ambitious film, and Kaufman bit off more than he could chew. It is, nonetheless, an impressive first film.

  3. Benicio says:

    As Paul Martin said, towards the end I just wanted it to shut the hell up and finish already! It started so interestingly too.

  4. Yep, Gondry directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and got a credit for being one of the three people who came up with the story, but Kaufman wrote the actual screenplay. I think it is easily the best film that both men have worked on. In fact, it is one of my favourite films from the last decade.

    I also got to the point where I simply wanted Synecdoche, New York to end and it does suffer from false ending syndrome too, making it even worse. I do essentially like the film but it is a highly flawed work that could have done with a big edit.