Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York ★★★★½

It’s perhaps a bittersweet coincidence of film history that a mere six years before his tragic passing, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in Charlie Kaufman’s poignantly surreal meditation on death, Synecdoche, New York. As self-absorbed and impossibly hypochondriac theater director Caden Cotard, Hoffman delivers one of the finest performances of his career, bringing a striking degree of empathetic relatability to his character that few other actors of our generation can quite match. Synecdoche, New York begins with Caden in his forties, suffering from constant intrusive thoughts that he has a life-threatening disease. Caden feels that his life is on the brink of slipping away, and begins work on his magnum opus by converting an impossibly vast warehouse into a surreal theater-simulation of his life. We follow Caden throughout his midlife and into the final years of his life, watching as his unhealthy obsession with death collapses in on itself, contradicting basic truisms of reality and blurring the line between his art and his life.

Hoffman, under the weight of meticulous makeup that convincingly depicts the physical erosion associated with aging, imbues every inch of his performance with a teary fatalism. Inferring through interviews about the role, it’s clear the late actor understood exactly what Kaufman was doing in Synecdoche and what it required of him throughout. Hoffman conveys Caden’s exhaustion throughout the film to a T, depressively wallowing in the certainty of his demise rather than celebrating the time he does have left. The final moments of Synecdoche, New York are some of the most magnificently moving in all of 21st century cinema, anchored just as strongly by Hoffman’s heartbreaking performance as they are by Charlie Kaufman’s masterful direction and script. Knowing that Hoffman died less than a decade after Synecdoche, New York makes the film an especially raw viewing now, but also adds a profound immediacy to its timeless message that life is a brief gift well worth cherishing.


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