CAPSULE: Generally clever screenwriter Charlie Kaufman directs for the first time. That should make for a fascinating film, but somehow it does not. A community director wins a grant and stages a play of his own life including the staging of the play in an infinite regression. This makes the film interesting in concept but disappointing in execution. And surreal touches added throughout that just do not add up to anything but a film more challenging than rewarding. A good cast cannot make this exercise engaging. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
I have to be honest. As much as I have liked and admired BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and even parts--not all--of ADAPTATION I do not think Charlie Kaufman's new film does much for me. Kaufman is on his way to being a real name brand in film writing. But I have to say that whatever Kaufman was trying to say with SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, the message was just not intercepted.
The first puzzle of this film is its title. There is no Synecdoche, New York. Perhaps the title is a corruption of Schenectady, where part of the action takes place. But nothing is ever explained. A "synecdoche" is a figure of speech, as I discuss at the end of this review. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director of local community theater. Through casting necessity or artistic design he has a young man playing Willie Loman. The production has dubious success. Meanwhile his wife (played by Catherine Keener), a successful artist, is taking their daughter to visit Germany. But secretly she is planning to dump Caden and just not to come back. Meanwhile Caden wins a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and stages a play of his own life. He rents a big open space warehouse in New York City and inside makes his own replica of New York City. There he stages the story of his life including the staging of the play itself. So real people are mixing actors playing themselves or actors playing the people around them. Then when real people interact with actors in the play new actors must be added to the play to dramatize those interactions.
The confusion increases exponentially as players play players in the play. The production drags on and on for years without ever opening to an audience. Yes, there is surrealism going on, but Kafka, wherever he is, has nothing to worry about. The complexity increases more like the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene, but not nearly so amusingly. And if all this is not strange enough Kaufman throws in a burning house that like the Burning Bush in the Bible burns but is not consumed. One of the characters lives in the house oblivious to the unusual nature of the building. There is also some strange sh-t going on with strange sh-t. And at least once there is something creepy with his peepee. Delightful. If there is such a thing as organized surrealism, this is not it. There is no obvious connection between the plays being staged and the tutti-frutti human waste. They are just there.
Kaufman has assembled a very good cast with Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But in so surreal and obscure a story the actors cannot have been inspired since it is not clear even what their performances meant. It is difficult to contribute to a film that does not know what it is doing.
Something clever could come out of the symmetries of the situation, but it never really does. When the film finally ended one woman from he audience came over to me and asked if I understood it. I said no and that while I like to come into a film not knowing what it is about, I hate leaving a film that same way.
Somebody must be getting something from this film because it is getting some very positive (and a few very negative) reviews. But SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK seems like a long drawn out shaggy dog story with no punch line. It is more an interesting idea for a film than an interesting film. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
(When I asked for my wife's hand in marriage I really wanted to get the whole woman. A "synecdoche" is a figure of speech in which the part is used to represent the whole. I suppose I could read into the film that the play being produced somehow represents the whole life. It seems to me what we are seeing is less like a synecdoche than like those magazine covers that show someone holding that very magazine whose cover shows someone holding that magazine, etc. There is also probably such a thing as a false-synecdoche where the part is not actually part of the whole. I would explain that in detail but now I have to get my tail out of here.)
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0383028/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper