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Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

May 5, 2009

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden

Charlie Kaufman is either insanely brilliant, or brilliantly  insane.  He has written the screenplays for some of the most innovative  and convoluted movies of our times (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich.)

I finally got to see his directorial debut effort Synecdoche, New York which is out on DVD now.  It took me three times to finally view the entire movie, because it requires your undivided attention. Chances are, even after multiple viewings you still will be scratching your head. Anyone who claims they know exactly what happens at the end of this movie is a flat out liar.  I don’t even think Mr. Kaufman knows what his intent was.  After watching the movie I listened to some of his interviews regarding the movie and he was extremely evasive about the ending, leading me to wonder whether he really knows what he wanted audiences to think.

Despite all that, I really liked the movie because it provokes your intellect.  That is Kaufman’s signature stamp he leaves on any movie.  His material is challenging, which precludes it from having any hope of a wide audience.  One of the podcasts that I listened to following the movie used the term “kamikaze auteurship”, when referring to Kaufman’s films.  I think that is absolutely perfect, no one can ever accuse Kaufman of selling out, he is fiercely dedicated to his material, to a fault.

Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director who receives a grant and decides to mount the most ambitious, honest production ever performed by filling a giant warehouse with actors portraying inhabitants of Synecdoche.  Each actor gets their directions for the day on stick-it notes detailed with whatever they are supposed to act out that day i.e. “you just found out your brother is gay” or “your husband has cancer”.  In theory, these actors live out every day on this giant sound stage pretending they are someone else, while Hoffman “directs” them.  The whole process goes on for decades, with him directing the same production day after day while his own mortality haunts him.  Love interests and wives come and go  throughout the course of the movie.  Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, and Samantha Morton, and Emily Watson co-star in this melancholy movie.

The reason I really like Kaufman despite how difficult and at times ridiculous his content becomes is that he is a gifted writer who creates beautiful thoughts that stay with me long after the film credits role.  I especially liked Caden’s realization that every person in the world is the lead in their own show.  There is also a monologue delivered by a priest toward the end of the movie that was very moving to me.  The concept that there are “a million little strings attached to every decision we make” and that we directly (not necessarily knowingly) control our own fate is fascinating to me.  As Caden states about  life  ”the end is built into the beginning”.

If you like your movies spoon-fed to you and wrapped up with a pretty bow, this is not the movie for you.  However, if you like movies that make you think about life, time, mortality, and relationships, by all means see this.  For an mind-blowingly intellectual analysis of this movie check out filmbrain’s write up.


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