Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York ★★★★½

This one's a doosie...

With Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman has cemented his place as one of the most ambitious and creative screenwriters of his generation. In his directorial debut he's attempted to distill life down to its essence, and to capture the entire human experience in one fowl swoop. He has varying degrees of success, but the film has such staggering insight and such raw emotional power that it's difficult to fault it too much for being the bloated and unwieldy cacophony that it is.

For me, this movie will forever be inextricably linked to The Tree of Life. That's not fair of course, as I'm sure it affects my judgment of the film, but it would be wrong of me to pretend otherwise. I remember very vividly reading Roger Ebert's deliberations for choosing his top 10 films for the most recent Sight and Sound pole, and the fact that he narrowed down his picks to these two films. The two films are very different in style but similar in ambition. You've got to respect a film that wants to explain the fundamental truths of life itself to you, and you have to marvel when one of them even gets close. In my opinion, these are both marvelous films.

Synecdoche, New York has a plot, but as with most of my favorite films that's not what affected me. The film hinges upon the acumen of its writer and the performances of its actors, and Kaufman hit the jackpot when it comes to the latter. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his best performances as Caden Cotard, a talented playwright stuck in a particularly terrible rut. He is a man out of time, his life a series of ever increasingly surreal events. After his wife and daughter leave him, he is serendipitously given a genius grant, and sets off to make the greatest play ever. "Something brave... something real."

And so begins a journey so complicated I can hardly find the words to describe it... though the word "Kafkaesque" comes to mind. This probably means that I don't understand it. I'm comfortable admitting that, and I will certainly need to return to this film to make my thoughts more coherent. There are so many possible interpretations, so many insights that I could scarcely claim to have grasped all of them.

I will say that two of the film's insights captured my thoughts for a long time (in fact, longer than I would have liked). About halfway through, Caden has a bit of a revelation. "Everyone is a lead in there own story" he says, "there are no extras." How true. Perhaps this is an obvious assertion, but it's a powerful one nonetheless. We are all of us playing ourselves in the show known as our lives, often oblivious to the fact that we are constantly stumbling upon stages that belong to others.

The other insight I must keep to myself, as to share might be to give the biggest spoiler in the movie. Suffice to say, it's worth seeing the film through to the end to find out. On a slightly more objective note, I must say that I don't think this qualifies as a perfect film. Kaufman seems to be a better writer than he is a director, and I think that if he could have adequately explained his thoughts to someone like Spike Jonze the end result might have been better. The pacing seems off, and some of the subplots (especially the one regarding Caden's daughter) seem like they could have been cut and not much would have been lost. The film's problems are significant enough that they can't be ignored. Even so, Kaufman is able to tap into some vein of thought so intrinsic to the human experience, and existence itself, that it's hardly worth complaining about all these things when considering the film as a whole.

Unlike The Tree of Life, Synecdoche has a very dour outlook on life... and some might say a more realistic one. I need more time to think on it, but it's safe to say that this film has changed the way I think about life and being human.

All this is to say... I think you should see it. After all, in one way or another, it's about you.

Connor liked this review