Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Archive: 'Synecdoche, New York"

Movie Review
Synecdoche, New York (2008)

The title of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" is the first and least of your worries with understanding this movie, so let's start with that. Synecdoche is an alternate spelling and the way locals pronounce the city of Schenectady, which is where the movie takes place. Synecdoche is also a term on its own, meaning, and I quote, a figure in which a part of a thing is put for the whole. And somehow, just somehow, that definition seems to ring true for this movie. You'll have to see it first, of course. Maybe to say that is a bit of a stretch, but this movie is in itself one long stretch of the imagination anyway.

Here's a movie that's easy to love and easy to hate. I fell into the former category. It's too bad people may not even have the patience to give this movie one viewing because it certainly requires multiple. It's a movie that is nearly impossible to put down into words because it's not so much about the plot than it is about the ideas that are inspired by the plot. No review could ever describe the soaring ambition this movie holds. We're familiar with Charlie Kaufman's writing from wonderful other movies such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich," and "Adaptation." With this latest feature, we're given the same signature wacky weirdness, but this time he is not held back as he serves as director, too. Kaufman likes observing the mind, its inner workings, and how we use it to try to grasp this crazy thing we call life. Using this formula, he takes it to a much grander scale and miraculously pulls off including essentially every possible aspect of life and aging in just two hours.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director, and with such a job comes the loneliness, deprivation, self-pity, and self-loathing. He continuously finds himself acquiring new ailments that send him to doctors that really don't know what's wrong with him except that something is. Caden concludes that he's dying. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), is a painter of miniature portraits, and their marriage is falling apart. They attend sessions with an egotistical psychotherapist (Hope Davis) who only wants to promote her own book. Adele eventually leaves Caden with their daughter, Olive, for Berlin to pursue her career. Caden breaks down and decides he needs to do something meaningful with his life. Upon receiving funding from a MacArthur Award, Caden initiates a project he hopes to be a monumental theater production.

It starts with one enormous warehouse that Caden buys and transforms into a city-size theater set piece. He starts by recruiting hundreds of actors and then thousands. He rehearses them in their own personal vignettes. Caden wants his play to capture the very essence of life, and his ultimate goal is to have nobody as an extra and have everybody perform his or her own special story. It becomes his obsession, and his work on this play becomes his life, and therefore, the play becomes about his life. It transforms into a self-layering, self-referential autobiography, one that becomes increasingly more dense and complex. Inside his warehouse, Caden replicates life line-by-line, replacing real-life people with fitting actors. Everything we see happening on screen is recreated for us on continuously building layers. It even gets to the point where there are warehouses within warehouses, and we never know if we're in fiction or reality.

And there's more. Caden gets involved with a box-office teller named Hazel (Samantha Morton) who lives in a perpetually burning house. Things go wrong, and Caden ends up marrying an actress named Claire (Michelle Williams). Later, they get divorced and Caden returns to Hazel, enlisting her to be his assistant in producing the play. Meanwhile, there are actors who play Caden and Hazel. Even a woman plays Caden at one point. Hazel ends up finding the man who plays Caden more fascinating than Caden himself. In an attempt to make Hazel jealous, Caden hooks up with the woman playing Hazel. And so on, and so on. The entire city is a stage and their world is a play but that play is their world and it is real and it is life.

Does any of that make sense? No, and "Synecdoche, New York" isn't a movie you have to understand right away mainly because, well, you can't. Instead of dismissing it, the better approach is to appreciate the fact that it's a great movie that can slowly unfold and reshape itself within your mind for many moments long after you've seen it. And then you can go see it again. With so many heartbreaking and poignant scenes and images throughout, this movie can't help but be called a masterpiece. Is the Academy going to recognize Charlie Kaufman's accomplishment? It's unlikely. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful film, and one that is near and dear to my heart.

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