Movie Review: Synecdoque, New York (f.s.t.)
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Most movies fling an audience from A to B to C so that the typical customer response to the average studio product - "Well, it was OK" - is elicited and there's a few more ducats in the coffers at the end of the day and no hard feelings. Being taken for a ride in comfortably predictable fashion: That's the idea.
Now and then, though, you encounter a film roomy enough to walk around in, like an art installation. It might get you vexed, or lost. But you might work your way out of the labyrinth to find yourself shaken up and genuinely moved by the experience.
"Synecdoche, New York," the new film from screenwriter and first-time feature director Charlie Kaufman, has provoked an astonishing variety of responses from those who have walked around in it. Fabulous. Worst film ever. Spellbinding. Like listening to paint dry, while watching someone else watch paint dry. It's an imperfect sprawl, steeped in the juices of artistic torment, romantic nostalgia, a mordant sense of humor and a landscape of "vague regrets and vaguer hopes," as one character puts it.
It sounds like a bummer, and for a lot of folks, it'll be a bummer. I found it bracing, and genuinely in touch with the sweet chaos and ache of life. The directorial debut from the author of such comparatively jaunty existential adventures as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" has a tricky story rhythm. Its early, domestically grounded scenes are handled in staccato fashion, shifting around the midpoint to a contemplative legato as its protagonist, a theater director from upstate New York, pours his increasingly bewildering life into an epic performance piece that takes half a lifetime to rehearse. Kaufman's movie is about the difficulty of living and loving and the punch line known as death. "We're the animal that knows it's going to die," as Kaufman said in an interview following the world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. "That's our specialty."
It begins conventionally enough. Caden Cotard, played with a tamped-down desperation by Philip Seymour Hoffman, lives in Schenectady, N.Y., with his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein as a child, Robin Weigert as an adult ). The household is a liberal arts cliche, full of "Morning Edition" on the radio and itchy artistic preoccupations discussed at the breakfast table. Adele works on teeny-tiny canvases in the family basement. Caden's latest project is a revival of "Death of a Salesman," populated by a weirdly underage cast.
The marriage is corroding. With Olive and Adele's vaguely subversive friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in tow, Adele takes off to Berlin to find herself and become famous. ("I'm famous!" is how she begins one painful long-distance call back home.) Caden's body, meantime, wages a conspiracy against its owner. Is he dying? Is his marriage worth the struggle, especially if Adele's already cut out with their daughter?
Suddenly a mixed blessing crash-lands into Caden's life, in the form of a MacArthur "genius" grant, enabling him to embark on a theatrical project of bruising honesty and endless self-examination. He rents a warehouse in New York City and re-creates scenes and characters from his rapidly passing life. Hazel, the tempting young woman who worked the box office during "Death of a Salesman," is now Caden's lover, and is played by another woman, Tammy. Caden hires an actor (more of a stalker, really) to play himself. Years seem to pass through wormholes, so that neither Caden nor the audience knows how much time has elapsed between Caden's first marriage and his second.
A synecdoche, pronounced "sin-ECK-de-key," refers to a "part representing the whole" or "the whole symbolizing a part," and as Caden re-creates parts of his memories for a stage extravaganza that will never reach opening night, the film piles riddles atop absurdities atop very real feelings of loss. Hazel lives in a house that is on fire, and not in the metaphorical sense. She tries to make the best of it. Caden, whose last name relates to Cotard's syndrome, a depressive wallow having to do with nihilistic delusions, keeps plodding forward, while his shrink offers little practical help beyond the sale of her latest self-help book.
As a director, Kaufman isn't yet his own best salesman. He's not enough of a visual stylist to sell his script's most challenging conceits. But the cast rises to a very strange and rich occasion. The women's roles actually count for something in this film, and in addition to Keener, Samantha Morton as the goggle-eyed dear Hazel, and Emily Watson as Tammy, the actress hired to play her in Caden's Pirandellian show, deliver honest bits of reality amid the craziest artifice. Dianne Wiest enters the action as a famous actress who plays, at one point, Caden, while assuming a stage-manager-as-God role in other scenes.
When you see "Synecdoche, New York" - and you should, even though I know a solid percentage of any audience will haaaaaate it - watch how Kaufman and editor Robert Frazen handle the scenes with Hope Davis as the shrink, cutting off the ends of the acidly amusing dialogue exchanges so that things seem not quite "real" or "normal." The entire film contains elements of a dream, or a trance. It is a dying fall, but a living, breathing one.
MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content/nudity).
Running time: 2:03.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Caden Cotard); Samantha Morton (Hazel); Michelle Williams (Claire); Catherine Keener (Adele); Emily Watson (Tammy); Dianne Wiest (Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Williams); Jennifer Jason Leigh (Maria); Hope Davis (Madeleine Gravis); Tom Noonan (Sammy).
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman; photographed by Frederick Elmes; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Jon Brion; production design by Mark Friedberg; produced by Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Sidney Kimmel. A Sony Pictures Classics release.