Time. Time. Time. Lights, camera, action.
“That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” -Caden
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a talented theatre director, is not happy with his plays. They incorporate elaborate setups that pale in comparison to his wife’s miniature paintings. He is also desperately trying to hold on to his broken relationship with her while his body, crippled by a neurological degradation, starts to breakdown.
But to leave it at that would be far too un-ambitious for the debutant director Charlie Kaufman, who has penned gems like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation.
At its simplest, the movie is Caden’s life story. What gives the movie its depth is his ambition. Receiving a MacArthur Fellowship allows him to attempt something he can pour his entire being into: a large-scale production, staged in a warehouse, attempting to recreate and capture the lives of the people living in New York.
Synecdoche, New York aims high and eschews cheap, or for that matter easy, entertainment. It refuses to wait for its viewer to catch up and is chock-full of Kaufman’s trademark mind twisters – spelled out, in this particular case, in the form of recursive loops. Caden’s life itself becomes one of the many stories in the warehouse, seen from a third person’s viewpoint that itself is a perspective staged for Caden (and his audience), which – the extension logically follows – is staged for a film that we are seeing.
A recurring motif in the film is time – or the absence of it, at least for its protagonist.
Caden, and through him the viewers, are constantly reminded of the passing time, yet it seems to stand still as, a minister in his magnum opus observes, we “wait in vain, wasting years, fora phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really.”
Three months, now six, a year and so the play keeps on growing bigger and bigger as actors liveout their characters in that huge bubble of a warehouse that eventually replaces New York itself.
We wait patiently, watching Caden’s life unfold, as he puts all of himself into the production, trying desperately to figure out how he wants to the play to be done. As he remarks at one point, “There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.”
It is this anticipation of the scale and the impossibility of the task that gives the viewer the power, and the will, to go through the bleak mess that is Caden’s life. We watch as he attempts to replace the people he has lost, as he puts his own character into the play, as he watches his doppelganger fall to his death. And we watch as he eventually lets go of his identity and assumes the character of his wife’s cleaning lady in the play – his idea of happiness, or at the very least, an escape from his miserable self.
Synecdoche, New York leaves you empty and exhausted. It leaves you with a sense of despair and, perhaps, anger. This is no mindless blockbuster. It will fill your mind with questions, thoughts and ideas; and for this reason alone Synecdoche, New York is a triumph.
Cast & Credits:
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman with Philip Seymour Hoffman (Caden Cotard), Samantha Morton (Hazel), Michelle Williams (Claire Keen), Catherine Keener (Adele Lack), Emily Watson (Tammy), Dianne Wiest (Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Maria), Hope Davis (Madeleine Gravis), Sadie Goldstein (Olive, 4 years old) and Tom Noonan (Sammy Barnathan).
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)