Synecdoche

by Alan Rapp on November 21, 2008

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Synecdoche, New York
  • IMDB: link

“Knowing that you don’t know is the first essential step to knowing, you know?”

Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director dealing with a myriad of problems, both physical and emotional which includes his inability to understand the passage of time (he can’t tell the difference between a few weeks and a few years), postules, eye and teeth issues, and his unsuccessful relationships with women (Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and others).

Into this dysfunctional existence comes a MacArthur genius grant (seemingly funded until the end of time) which allows Caden to create his own masterpiece.  Decades later the project takes up several square blocks, employs hundreds, has become a mirror to Caden’s failures (complete with extras who begin playing the extras, who have now themselves become characters in the play), and is no closer to being finished.

That’s about all I can tell you about the plot since its dreamlike nature makes it hard to say how much, or how little, is reality or Caden’s wild imaginings.

Writer, and now first-time director, Charlie Kaufman, who has been known for his reality-bending tales (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich), allows his imagination to go wild.  The film is filled with the bizarre including a house, where on character chooses to live, perpetually on fire for decades, a barage of strange events, and in the end a story which we can’t take all that seriously.  Although the strangeness itself is somewhat fascinating, Caden himself is not.

There’s a moment in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage‘s character, realizing that he has written himself into his own script admits his self-indulgence and failure.  That’s pittance compared to the levels of Caden reaches, but here no one, not even those who want to hurt him emotionally, seem to be able to make this rather obvious realization.

I give Kaufman all the credit in the world for creating something different, even if it doesn’t work.  However a second voice is needed if only to tell him just because he can think of something doesn’t mean it belongs in the film.  At the heart I think there’s a good movie buried deep down, but I’m not sure its worth the effort to try and find it.  I have many issues with Synecdoche and can’t quite recommend it, though it earns points for strong performances and the sheer imagination of the undertaking.  I just wish it amounted to more.

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