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Synecdoche, New York
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Portrait Of An Artist With Irritable Bowels."
4 stars

At the time that I am writing these words, I have seen Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” one time and as a result, I suspect that I am woefully unprepared to tackle the task of writing about it. This is probably not a surprise when you consider that it is the directorial debut of the screenwriter behind the mind-bending likes of “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”--with an oeuvre like that, it is a fairly certain bet that your first project behind the camera is probably not going to be a run-of-the-mill buddy comedy. No, Kaufman has given us what must surely be the most ambitious American film of the year, a sprawling and surreal meditation on life, death and art that takes more chances in any one scene than most movies do in their entire running times and while I am still not certain how it all fits together or what it all means--I would need to see it at least one more time before even attempting to make such a claim--I can tell you that if you do take a chance and go to see it, it will stick in your brain for a long time to come regardless of whether you love it or hate it.

The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, an ambitious stage director whose personal and professional lives are currently in a tailspin. His work life currently finds him toiling away in relative obscurity in the wilds of Schenectady, New York as the head of a theatrical troupe that is currently staging a production of “Death of a Salesman” with young actors in the lead roles. At home, he dotes on his beloved young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), his marriage to artist Adele (Catherine Keener) has grown increasingly strained and when it comes time for her to go to Berlin for an exhibition of her work, she announces at the last minute that she would prefer it if Caden doesn’t accompany her and takes off with Olive, never to return. Her departure would seem to pave the way for a relationship with the clearly interested box-office worker Hazel (Samantha Morton) but things don’t quite work out there either. He tries to work through his problems via analysis but his therapist (Hope Davis) is more interested in selling her latest self-help tome than in supplying him with any useful insights. And right on cue, his emotional breakdowns are met by a litany of icky physical ailments that are shown in enough detail to ensure that the concession stand revenues at any theater playing the film are going to dip considerably for as long as it is playing.

Abruptly, the scene shifts to a couple of years later when Caden learns that he has been awarded one of those MacArthur genius grants. Armed with this news, he goes off to Berlin to reclaim Olive from Adele, only to discover that she is being raised by her mother’s strange German friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who refuses to relinquish her. Upon returning home, his father passes away in a manner that leads to one of the stranger funeral scenes ever seen in a film. In response, he decides to use his grant to rent out an airplane hanger-sized studio space in Manhattan’s theater district and brings his troupe down in order to reenact life as they--mostly Caden--see it amidst a replica of the entire city itself. The main actress from the troupe, Claire (Michelle Williams) is cast as Caden’s lover on and off the stage, Hazel is represented by look-alike actress Tammy (Emily Watson) and for the role of Caden himself, he casts the weirdo actor (Tom Noonan) who has been quietly stalking him for years and who may have better insights into what makes him tick than he does himself. Years pass in the blink of an eye, people change, evolve and/or die, the cast expands and fluctuates and Caden’s dream of complete creative freedom begins to turn into a nightmare when even he begins to lose the thread of both his life and his art and despairs of ever getting to the ultimate meaning of either of them. However, potential salvation comes in the form of Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), an acclaimed actress who eventually arrives to change the course of the show once again.

Like many moviegoers, I consider Charlie Kaufman to be one of the most ingenious talents at work today and have found his previous screenplays to be masterfully written tales in he utilizes the most bizarre, hilarious and head-spinning narrative tricks and conceits available as a way of getting through to the basic emotional truths that are lurking at their centers. However, while watching “Synecdoche, New York,” it seemed to me that, at least on first glance, that he may have bitten off a little more than he can chew with this particular story. While his previous efforts were just as dazzlingly complex as this one, those earlier screenplays managed to contain an easily graspable central concept that viewers could hold on to as they went down the rabbit hole--a mysterious hole that allowed you to enter the mind of a celebrity for 15 minutes or a man undergoing a medical process to erase the memories of a lost love affair changing his mind and trying to protect them after all--“Synecdoche, New York” lacks such a hook and while that does make it more interesting to ponder from a purely intellectual, it makes it far more difficult to engage with the proceedings on an emotional human level than his other efforts. Maybe the difference is that with those earlier films, he was only the screenwriter while collaborators like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were charged as directors with transferring his visions from the page to the screen in a way that kept Kaufman’s unique voice while still making them reasonably accessible to viewers. As a first-time filmmaker, Kaufman’s efforts here are astounding enough on a technical level that if you didn’t know otherwise, you might simply assume that Jonze or Gondry was doing the directing and in a weird way, that actually winds up working against the film as well--instead of offering up the bold new vision that some might have expected, the film at times feels like someone attempting to do a Charlie Kaufman-type film than an actual Charlie Kaufman film, if that makes any sense at all.

At the same time, there are many other elements in the film that are immediately engaging. The performances from the enormous cast are universally winning--outside of the tour-de-force from Philip Seymour Hoffman, I especially loved the amusing turns from Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh (whose work here may be the most way-out thing she has ever done in a film) and Hope Davis, whose narcissistic shrink pretty much steals the entire show whenever she walks on sporting her unique footwear. Visually, the cinematography from Frederick Elmes (best known for his hypnotic contributions to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet”) does an extraordinary job of putting us into the mind of Caden to such a degree that it becomes just as difficult for us as it is for him to tell the difference between the reality he is creating on his stage and the reality that continues to intrude on his life and work. The production design and visual effects work required to create the illusion of Caden’s vast indoor city is so convincing on what must have been a modest budget that it puts most effects-filled behemoths to shame. The haunting a moody score supplied by Jon Brion is just as ingenious as his memorable efforts for films like “Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “Eternal Sunshine.” And while I am not certain that Kaufman’s screenplay completely pulls itself together at this point, I am willing to admit that there are plenty of brilliant moments and ideas on display throughout, ranging from jaw-dropping sight gags like the intriguing special feature of the house that the Samantha Morton character purchases early on in the proceedings to absolutely perfect bits of dialogue, such as a pivotal moment towards the end being underlined with the phrase “It’s an Equity break anyway”--it may not sound like much on the page but it definitely works on the screen.

Look, I know in my heart that “Synecdoche, New York” most likely is the flat-out masterpiece that its proponents are claiming it to be--if nothing else, the rage and vituperation aimed at it by uber-hack critic Rex Reed would seem to suggest that it is worth a look. However, I must admit that on the basis of my first and only viewing, I don’t quite see it that way myself as of yet, though I am fairly certain that it may well finally reveal itself on a subsequent viewing. So where does that leave your faithful critic when it comes to the admittedly odious task of assigning it a star rating--do I give it the top rating that I suspect that it really deserves or do I give it the slightly lower rating that is more in line with my initial reaction even though it may well change once I give it a second look. I guess that in the name of full honesty, I have to give it the slightly lower rating with the caveat that it is probably better than I think it is. If there is any consolation, it is in the fact that the kind of viewer interested in reading about a film like this will be more concerned with reading my actual responses to the material and won’t give a damn about the number of stars it has been awarded.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17786&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/07/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/13/20 Jack Sommersby One of the all-time, unwatchable movies ever made. A sheer atrocity. 1 stars
4/30/11 brian First act darkly hilarious, second act too long, third act too ponderous...but a must-see. 4 stars
9/21/10 Karamashi Challenging but fucking brilliant. 5 stars
6/21/09 Kazelzbq Hi webmaster! muh 2 stars
4/18/09 Meathead Haven't seen it, but loved "Sunshine." Your review has me thinking. 4 stars
4/07/09 Baloney As interwoven with directorial identity as Fellini's 8 1/2. Love that quixotic Kaufman. 5 stars
1/05/09 thejames Good to see creative films being made 5 stars
11/04/08 denny very interesting; thoughtful 4 stars
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  24-Oct-2008 (R)
  DVD: 10-Mar-2009


  DVD: 10-Mar-2009

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