Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York

*****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Art and life don’t just imitate, they cannibalise each other in Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut and the first of his screenplays to embrace the freedom of disappearing up its own tailpipe. And therein lies the critic’s problem: all any of us can reasonably hope is to make it to the end of a review without doing the same.

Mainstream audiences may hate and critics may debate, but Synecdoche is a work of unmitigated, undisciplined genius. Morbid, messy, confounding and surreal, the film is also hilarious, touching and profoundly romantic. It’s like an MRI of Kaufman’s neuroses, a mind-meld of his screenplays for Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. But without Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to provide filters and airbags, the material comes at you like a runaway train packed with more triggers and signifiers than a year’s worth of psychoanalysis. “It’s about everything,” says the movie’s playwright protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), describing his magnum opus. He could also be describing the movie.

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We first meet Caden in September (the “melancholy month,” says a radio announcer in a spot-on spoof of National Public Radio pretentiousness) as he and his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) begin another day in their grungy Schenectady home. “I think I’m dying,” he moans, introducing one of the film’s primary obsessions, already telegraphed by Caden’s name (Cotard’s Syndrome is the belief that you’re already dead, or have never existed). But as we watch the family breakfast we notice that the scene’s time markers - a wall calendar, a newspaper - disagree and realise this is a montage of many mornings over a period of months, during which Caden’s body and marriage will slowly disintegrate.

When Adele takes Olive to Berlin for a showing of her paintings (tiny, four-inch-square canvases teeming with detail - the movie in microcosm) and never returns, Caden takes up with Hazel (a delicious Samantha Morton). The ticket taker at the community theater where Caden is directing a successful reworking of Death Of A Salesman, Hazel has flaming red hair and, literally, an apartment perpetually in flames. (Death hovers on the periphery of almost every scene, waiting patiently.) But Caden is too fixated on his art to enjoy her adoration and that of his leading lady (Michelle Williams); armed with a MacArthur genius grant, he begins to rehearse a gargantuan production based on his own life, a process that will continue for decades while everyone close to Caden will move on without him. He’s too busy examining his life to live it.

A ‘synecdoche’ occurs when part of something is used to represent the whole; and as Caden’s play, housed in a massive Brooklyn warehouse, swells to encompass a cast of hundreds and several city blocks, its director - and the audience - becomes increasingly unable to separate reality and fantasy. Playing with time, gender and identity, Kaufman (who admits to suffering from Obssessive Compulsive Disorder) presents a man who, for all his efforts to explicate himself, remains essentially a mystery. Kaufman wants us to know that the creative impulse is a harsh mistress, but so is the box office, and the repeat viewings that Synecdoche practically demands are unlikely to be granted by all but a few hardy souls.

Too eccentric for some and too depressing for most, Synecdoche seems destined to be the most polarising movie of the year. Within its astonishing boundaries, however, Kaufman’s Bergman-esque vision reminds us that movies are capable of being much more than just tutorials on how to get laid or fight evil wizards. Sometimes, if we let them, they can break our hearts.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2008
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The story of a theatre director's drive to produce his masterwork.

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Anton Bitel *****


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