Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

You can't accuse Charlie Kaufman of playing it safe with his directorial debut. This thrillingly weird experiment is his most challenging film yet and certain to become a cult classic.

Charlie Kaufman is arguably the only screenwriter working today who has been granted auteur status despite the fact that he's never called "Action!" on a movie set. Typically, directors are considered to be the authors of a film, but the lion's share of credit for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has gone to Kaufman rather than the men behind the camera—Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. This isn't entirely fair, of course, as subsequent script-to-screen comparisons have shown just how crucial both directors were to bringing Kaufman's words to visual life. Still, there's also no denying that only Kaufman could come up with the bizarre ideas, stories and characters that drive those films. With Synecdoche, New York, the scribe at last adds the job of director to his resume, finally giving us a glimpse of what a pure, unfiltered Charlie Kaufman film looks like. The result is truly something to behold. Fascinating and frustrating, brilliant and baffling, Synecdoche, New York is unlike any Kaufman picture made to date and unlike any other movie you'll see this year.

Trying to summarize the plot of Synecdoche (which is pronounced "sih-neck-doh-kee" by the way—make a note of it so you don't hold up the line at the ticket counter by stumbling over the title) is next to impossible, but here's an attempt. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a regional theatre director in upstate New York who is in the process of mounting his latest production, a revival of Death of a Salesman with an ensemble cast of twenty-something actors. An unhappy man by nature, Caden has lately been feeling even more miserable than usual, thanks to problems in his marriage to frustrated artist Adele (Catherine Keener) as well as a series of medical problems that may or may not be killing him. When Adele finally leaves him and moves to Germany with their young daughter, Caden takes up with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the alluring ticket-taker at his theatre. His guilt quickly brings that relationship to a premature end, but at least the director can console himself by dedicating his energy to his next and greatest theatre project. Purchasing a giant empty warehouse in a rundown part of New York City, Caden proceeds to construct an exact replica of the Big Apple within this space and populates it with actors playing real people...including himself.

For the first half-hour or so, Synecdoche unfolds like a routine domestic melodrama. Then Kaufman stages a scene with Morton—I won't reveal which one, but you'll know it when you see it—that gives us a taste of the weirdness to come. By the 60-minute mark, Synecdoche has completely abandoned any sort of conventional narrative structure and plunges viewers into situations where fantasy and reality intermingle in increasingly whacked-out ways. In the production notes, Kaufman reveals that Synecdoche began its life as a horror film, and the movie does have a number of frightening moments, though not in a Saw or Hostel sense. Rather, Kaufman is operating in the David Lynch school of horror, where the fear comes from watching the characters' carefully constructed realities being reduced to chaos in front of their eyes. Death and abandonment are the two things that Caden himself fears most, so the film repeatedly puts him in situations where he has to confront both. Whether these moments are "real" or not doesn't actually matter—to Caden, the emotional impact is the same whether he's awake, dreaming or, possibly, dying himself.

This is not to suggest that Synecdoche is a grim slog that has to be endured rather than enjoyed. As in most Kaufman-penned pictures, a strong streak of dark humor underlines almost every scene, and viewers who really spark to the film will have a blast trying to unravel the various levels of reality at play in Caden's ingenious theatre piece. It's the kind of movie that only grows richer with repeat viewings.

That said, at 124 minutes, Synecdoche can be a wearying sit and Kaufman's inexperienced direction doesn't necessarily help matters. Where Gondry and Jonze employed a freewheeling visual language that complemented the writer's flights of fancy, Kaufman proves to be a more conservative filmmaker. Shooting largely with a locked-down camera and carefully composed frames, Synecdoche is restrained in a way that Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are decidedly not, and that ends up giving the movie a curiously airless feeling at times. It's also clear that Kaufman is less skilled at working with actors than his previous collaborators. While the entire ensemble does good work here, their performances lack the richness of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine or Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in Adaptation.

Nevertheless, for a select audience (myself included), Synecdoche, New York will easily rank amongst 2008's best films. And even if its inevitable box-office failure dooms Kaufman to a life of writer-for-hire gigs, at least he seized the opportunity to truly challenge himself, creating a wildly ambitious and wholly unique movie in the process.