Synecdoche, New York
(dir. Charlie Kaufman | USA | 2008)
Screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman’s directorial début is a darkly comic absurdist masterpiece that risks suffocating on its own highly-ambitious intentions, writes Hugh Lilly
syn·ec·do·che [Sih-NECK-doh-kee] (noun)
a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sails for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage)
Charlie Kaufman is the acclaimed screenwriter of Michel Gondry’s colourful tale of love and memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.-in which the screenwriter wrote about himself and an invented twin, Donald-and Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack finds a portal into the actor’s mind courtesy of an Alice In Wonderland-like miniature door in his 7-½th floor office. Kaufman’s newest writing achievement, and his directorial début, is Synecdoche, New York, another equally complex, layered story about one man’s all-encompassing existential self-examination.
Caden Cotard, played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theatre director from Schenectady, New York who is transfixed by death and the vacuous meaninglessness of life. At the start of the film, Caden wakes up to a radio interview with a prominent intellectual who comments that September marks “the beginning of the end,” the point at which winter sets in and flora and fauna wither and die. We see him go through his daily routine: he reads the paper each morning, skipping the mundane and quotidian articles in favour of the obituaries and tales of inescapable catastrophe. He has a lovely wife, Adele-played by the brilliant Catherine Keener-and an adoring daughter, Olive. But even with his success at home and at work he can’t help but obsess over his inescapable, eventual demise. “We are all hurtling towards death,” he tells a packed room of actors at one point in the film. More neurotic and hypochondriac than two Woody Allen characters combined, Caden has an easily combustible personality that seeps through the frame, and minor disasters accompany his every action.
As the film opens, he’s re-staging “Death of a Salesman,” and the set falls apart. The milk in his fridge seems always to be expired, and for some reason a subscription to a magazine about hospital technology for the dying has started arriving in his letterbox. While Caden is shaving one morning the faucet explodes, whacking him in the forehead and necessitating several stitches. Throughout Synecdoche, houses and their plumbing are metaphors for decaying, fragile bodies. From here, he begins his laboured journey toward death, dragging everyone else with him along the way. Adele announces that she’s leaving Caden and taking Olive and her artistic career-she paints portraiture on miniature canvases-to Berlin, where they’ll live with Maria, a friend of Adele’s. In his wife’s absence Caden begins to work more closely with Claire, a ditzy but ambitious actress played with verve and exuberance by the delightful Michelle Williams. He also develops an interest in Hazel, the box office receptionist, played by a frizzy-redheaded Samantha Morton.
Hazel buys a house that’s perennially aflame-small fires decorate the living room, glowing like candles, and clouds of smoke waft through the air. “I like it, I really do,” says Hazel, “I’m just a bit concerned about dying in the fire.” “It’s a big decision, how one chooses to die,” responds the real estate agent. Scenes with Caden’s therapist-played by the remarkably talented Hope Davis-contain some of the best lines in the film, most of which revolve around Caden mishearing what she says. She anticipates the ends of sentences and answers questions before they’re fully asked; the words in a book of hers that Caden is reading on a plane change after she mysteriously appears in the seat next to him and they have a flirtatious conversation.
Caden is awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant, and the “uncompromising” theatre piece he will create with it becomes the main focus of the film. Being the perfectionist he is, he purchases an impossibly large warehouse in Schenectady in which to stage the performance: an exact, complete replica of his world; New York City as seen through his eyes, duplicated on a life-size scale. Eventually, the project becomes so meta that he needs to cast someone as himself. Enter Sammy Barnathan, a Larry David lookalike who’s been following Caden all his life. “And by following you, I’ve learned everything there is to know about you. Hire me, and you’ll see who you truly are,” says Sammy in his audition.
As the ‘real’ New York crumbles and deteriorates into civil war outside, Caden retreats to the relative safety of his gargantuan theatre and, by extension, the labyrinthine cacophony of his own mind. Somehow also during this time, Caden has been posing as a cleaner so he can look after Adele’s apartment in order to feel connected to her and Olive. The warehouse-theatre counterpart for this cleaner is Millicent Weems, played by the incomparable Dianne Weist. Emily Mortimer is hired as an ersatz Hazel, and, just in case there weren’t already enough confusing narrative layers, there’s a stand-in for Sammy. As the plot of Caden’s theatre piece flails wildly out of control-there’s an interesting correlation here with Adele’s work, which becomes smaller and smaller-so too does Kaufman’s hold on Synecdoche, the film. The narrative becomes just complex enough at this point to be frustrating. It is here that Kaufman’s somewhat limited skills as a director make themselves apparent. He does manage to rein in his characters and loose ends eventually, however.
In choosing to direct his own screenplay, Kaufman has deprived the film of the free-spirited essence and whimsical craftwork aesthetic of Gondry -or the aloof but methodical sure-footedness of Spike Jonze, for example. He makes up for it, though, with an eye for multifaceted structure, a sharp sense of the absurd, and near-perfect comedic timing. Kaufman has taken elements from both Gondry and Jonze’s unique, idiosyncratic styles, and blended them together with his own ideas about the world. The cyclical story-within-a-story narrative of Adaptation., with its mention of Oroborous, the mythical snake that devours its own tail, is present here in the Matryoshka doll format of Caden’s New York-within-New York. Jon Brion has carefully crafted a lush and ornate score that sits beautifully in the background, and the few songs featured in the film add to the poignancy of certain scenes. Despite the inky black comedic tone of Synecdoche, and its running time-a little over two hours-it never seems over-long or boring; scenes come and go briskly, and there’s much to savour in each.
Death casts its grim shadow across every frame of the intriguingly Brechtian Synecdoche, New York, and the film is occasionally playfully crass, as is the case with Kaufman’s other scripts. The final scene ends with a one-word line whispered to Caden through an earpiece: “Die.” The film is not entirely depressing, despite this pensive concentration on morbidity, but it certainly won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very rare that a film with such an unpronounceable title would be financed, and even more rare that its director would have so much control over the end product. Synecdoche is an auspicious début that, even with its faults, sustains repeated close viewings-indeed, it demands to be seen at least twice in order to be fully understood and appreciated-and reveals more of itself each time.
Synecdoche, New York screens at the Academy as part of the World Cinema Showcase on Thursday April 23 at 8pm, and Monday April 27 at 8.30pm