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From the DVD Shelf: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (one of my very favorite films, and the film that made me forever a fan of Sam Rockwell), Adaptation (click here for my review), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed.  (To this day, that is the first and only film Mr. Kaufman has directed.)  Based on Mr. Kaufman’s pedigree, I was of course eager to see Synecdoche, New York when it was released.  But I missed it in theatres, and when I read mixed reviews of the film, my enthusiasm to see it dimmed a bit.  It remained on my list of movies-I-want-to-see, but that is a very LONG list, and so it was only last month when I finally sat down to watch Mr. Kaufman’s movie.

Synecdoche, New York is a very bizarre film.  It is very difficult, at times, to watch (both because of the somewhat confusing narrative but also because I found much of the film’s subject matter to be incredibly depressing).  But it is also very funny in places, and I found the film’s wonderfully weird, almost dreamlike structure to be quite unique and engaging.

From the very beginning, the film is constantly, subtly playing with the idea of what is reality.  At first it seems like we’re watching a sad, quiet relationship drama, not unlike many other small-budget indie films.  We can see that the marriage between the playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling.  But, without fanfare, in the early scenes there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments when the film seems to slip into Caden’s head, and what we see on-screen is not reality but rather what Caden is thinking and feeling.  I’m thinking, most notably, of several amusing instances in which Caden imagines himself in the middle of whatever he is watching on TV.

As the film progresses, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.  After Adele leaves Caden and heads to London without him, we see Caden reading a magazine, and he comes across a spread in the magazine all about Adele.  At first I assumed that was a moment of fantasy, in which Caden was imagining Adele being completely happy and successful without him in London.  (It must be fantasy, because how could she have a lengthy article written about her only a week after she went to London?)  But later scenes caused me to question my interpretation of that scene.  The sit-up-and-take notice moment, for me, came a few minutes later (about 30 minutes into the film).  We see Caden meet Hazel (Samantha Morton) for a drink.  Hazel works at the box-office in Caden’s theatre, and it’s been obvious since her first scene that she has a huge crush on Caden.  At one point Hazel comments that Adele has been gone for a year, and Cadeb angrily replies that it’s only been a week.  Hazel laughs and says that she needs to buy Caden a calendar.  WHOA.  Suddenly I was forced to contemplate that Caden has been a far more unreliable narrator than I had at first assumed, and though we’ve been watching the story unfold through his eyes, it’s possible that he is completely blind to the realities of his situation and the passage of time.

Things get much loonier from then.  The film is constantly playing with Caden’s (and, by extension, the audience’s) grasp on the passage of time.  As the years pass, we often continue to see the characters surrounding Caden looking exactly as they did when he (and we) first met them, despite clues in the dialogue (and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s own increasing old-age make-up) indicating that these characters are most likely far older than they appear to be on-screen.

But, of course, the movie’s true left-hand turn into fantasy-land occurs in the second half, in which Caden begins work on his magnum-opus: the transformation of an unrealistically enormous, hangar-like theatre space into a complete replica of his life in New York City.  Caden hires technicians to begin constructing life-like replicas of city blocks, and characters to play everyone he knows, including himself, as well as all the people he meets and interacts with or just passes in the street.  Pretty soon, this illusion begins to grown numerous Russian doll-like layers-within-layers, as Caden needs not only to cast an actor to play himself and Hazel, who he can direct, but also actors to play himself and Hazel who those first actors can direct, and then additional Cadens/Hazels for those actors to direct directing, and so on and so forth.  Some of my favorite sequences from the film come during these later parts, when we see the complex interactions between the “real” Caden and Hazel and the various different actors playing them within the different levels of the recreations.  (I loved when the actor, Sammy, playing Caden, begins to fall in love with the “real” Hazel, because he was starting to feel everything that the “real” Caden felt.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman commands the screen as the intelligent but broken Caden.  Despite some of the fantastical events that happen as the film unfolds, it is an exquisitely human, tragic performance as this lonely little man searching for the meaning in his life.  I was also quite taken with the performance of Tom Noonan as Sammy, the first actor who Caden hires to portray himself.  In a role that could have been laughably silly, Mr. Noonan brings something so devastatingly sweet and sad to Sammy that I found him to be the character who most haunted me after the film was completed.

They say there aren’t a lot of great roles for women in films these days, and that’s probably true.  But boy, Synecdoche, New York is stuffed-to-overflowing with incredible actresses playing some fascinating female characters.  Catherine Keener is, for the most part, only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but she creates a powerful presence that leaves a mark on Caden, and the entire film, long after she is gone.  Long before Caden does, I fell in love with Samantha Morton as Hazel.  She’s the most innocent character in the film, and the way she finds herself unable to ever really detach herself from Caden is sweet and also tragic.  Michelle Williams is compelling but also, in her own way, quite tragic as the beautiful actress Claire.  She finds success in Caden’s plays and, later in life, falls into a relationship with him.  Of course, this eventually goes south the way all of Caden’s relationships with women seem to, leaving her not exactly better off from the experience.  She also appears ultimately unable to quite separate herself from Caden (appearing, even after their relationship soured, as herself in his enormous city-wide recreation) and thus also becomes something of a tragic figure in the film.  Somewhat more silly is Hope Davis’ role as Madeleine Gravis, Caden’s psychiatrist and also the author of many self-help books.  She pops up throughout the film to blissfully give Caden rather meaningless advice.  Jennifer Jason Leigh has only a few scenes as Adele’s sister Maria, but she’s hilarious and also horrible (particularly if we believe what we see of her actions later in life.  In the slippery narrative of this film, though, one must be open to the possibility that Caden is only imagining her to be as cruel to him as we see her be later in his life.)  Then there is the great Dianne Wiest.  She only appears towards the end of the film, but she makes quite an impression as the woman who, ultimately, offers herself to Caden to be his director, so he need no longer be responsible for making his own decisions in life.  It’s an enigmatic role and Ms. Wiest really leaves a mark on the film.

I think I’ve already told you far more about this film that you really need to know.  It is complex and bizarre, and terribly heartbreaking at times.  It is also delightfully playful and silly and, in a warped sort of way, almost life-affirming in the end.  Sort of.  It’s a far more challenging film than some of Mr. Kaufman’s earlier works (which weren’t exactly super-mainstream themselves).  I can’t really say that I loved Synecdoche, New York, but I found it to be an invigorating movie-watching experience and I’m really glad to have finally seen it.

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