New York Times Movie Review

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Dreamer, Live in the Here and Now

Published: October 24, 2008

To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now. That at least would be an appropriate response to a film about failure, about the struggle to make your mark in a world filled with people who are more gifted, beautiful, glamorous and desirable than the rest of us — we who are crippled by narcissistic inadequacy, yes, of course, but also by real horror, by zits, flab and the cancer that we know (we know!) is eating away at us and leaving us no choice but to lie down and die.

Yet since this is a review of a new Charlie Kaufman work, perhaps I should hit rewind: “Synecdoche, New York” is the first film directed by the writer of such unlikely Hollywood entertainments as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a romance of such delicate feeling that it’s still a shock that it carries a studio brand. Mr. Kaufman’s kinked, playful screenplays are usually accompanied by a flurry of “e” adjectives: eclectic, eccentric, edgy, eggheady. (Also: quirky.) That’s true only if you consider the contemporary American screen, with its talking Chihuahuas and adult male babies with mother fixations. Come to think of it, the main character in “Synecdoche” has a thing about poop and bosomy women, though happily not at the same time.

To continue, despite my agonizing self-consciousness: “Synecdoche” is the story of a theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, exhaling despair with every breath), miserably married to a talented painter, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). The two live in Schenectady, N.Y., with their 4-year-old, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), who, when the story opens, is casually evacuating radioactive-green feces. Neither Caden nor Adele is alarmed, so intensely are they wrapped up in a depressive melancholia they seem to have nurtured longer than their daughter. Even couples therapy (with Hope Davis, in a dazzling brief turn) brings out the worst in them. “Can I say something awful?,” Adele asks (as if she needed permission), before confessing that she fantasized Caden dying. Which made her happy.

Caden lives with Adele and Olive in a “fragile-seeming home,” which is true even if those particular words were written by Arthur Miller, who uses them to describe Willy Loman’s home. As it happens, Caden is directing “Death of a Salesman,” but with a twist: the actors (including Michelle Williams), are all young. The tragedy of the play, explains Caden, will emerge from the casting: the audience will see the young actors and know that, in time, they will end up every bit as crushed as Willy. In “Salesman,” Miller writes that an air of the dream clings to Willy’s home, “a dream rising out of reality.” Mr. Kaufman doesn’t directly quote these words, yet they hover over the film nonetheless.

“Salesman” is a smash, but everything else falls to smithereens. Adele, who smirks through the play and asks Caden why he’s wasting himself on other people’s work, takes Olive to Berlin for a show that will make the painter a star. Caden stays behind, worrying the sores that have sprouted on his body and watching a pharmaceutical commercial in which he appears to play a part. Is he delusional? Dreaming? Before you have time to reach for Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” he wins a MacArthur Award, a so-called genius grant, and begins work on a monumental theater production. I want, he tells his therapist with baleful sincerity, to create something “big and true and tough. You know, finally put my real self into something.”

He succeeds in doing the first (the big, the true, the tough); it’s the self part that proves trickier. Among many, many other things, “Synecdoche, New York” is about authenticity, including the search for an authentic self in an inauthentic world. For Caden, creating something that will justify the genius award, which will quiet Adele’s mocking criticism and his own restless doubt, becomes all-consuming. Inside a fantastically, impossibly enormous warehouse, he begins rehearsing with dozens and then hundreds, thousands, of actors, directing them in separate lifelike vignettes. Ms. Williams’s Claire, the adoring young woman who earlier played Willy Loman’s wife, joins the new cast and soon marries Caden, Adele having abandoned that role. (“I’m famous!” Adele blurts out to Caden on the phone from Berlin before hanging up.)

There’s more — including Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden’s sweetest of sweethearts — so much more that you would need to recreate the film in its entirety to get it all in, which is precisely Caden’s own tactic. Inside the warehouse, he builds a replica of his world line by line, actor by actor, until fiction and nonfiction blur. Like the full-scale map in Borges’s short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the representation takes on the dimensions of reality to the point of replacing it. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard uses Borges’s story as a metaphor for his notion of the simulacrum, which probably explains why Caden, who has trouble naming things, considers titling his production “Simulacrum.” I don’t even know what that means, sighs Hazel.

You may giggle knowingly at that line, but the poignancy of this exchange is that Caden, who is so busy creating one world that he forgets to live in another, doesn’t seem to really understand what it means either. Mr. Kaufman rarely stops to explain himself, but like that simulacrum aside, he continually hints at what he’s up to, where he’s going and why. (Even Caden’s last name is a clue as to what ails him.) Mr. Kaufman is serious about seriousness, but he’s also serious about being funny, so he drops heavy weight (Kafka, Dostoyevsky) lightly, at times comically, and keeps the jokes, wordplay and sight gags coming amid the on- and offstage dramas, divorces, births, calamities, the fear and the sickness and the trembling.

Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.

“Synecdoche, New York” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for grown-up words and female nudity.


Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Jon Brion; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anthony Bregman, Mr. Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Sidney Kimmel; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

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).

Correction: October 25, 2008