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SYNECDOCHE, NY (2008) ** advanced screening review by COOP

Posted on October 30th, 2008
Posted on October 30th, 2008


“Synecdoche” (pronounced, sin-EK-doh-kee) is a literary term that means using a part of something to represent the whole or vice-versa. For instance a hand could also mean a worker, or the law could also refer to a police officer. If you use this word in context with Shakespeare’s quote, “All the world is a stage…” and the generic figure of speech, “Life imitating art and vice-versa,” then you get a vague idea of what the film “Synecdoche, NY” is trying to accomplish.

Oscar-winning screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, assembles some of tinseltown’s most prestigious screen actors for his ambitious directorial debut. The brave supporting cast reads like a SAG Awards roll call: Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Wiest, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan… all hand-picked by Kaufman, all delivering first class performances. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is predictably brilliant as the dumpy, fictional version of Kaufman himself. Kaufman is lucky to have actors who trust his talent because I’d be surprised if any of them could explain what this story meant.

Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is a hypochondriac theater director and a miserable sad-sack. His artist wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) openly wishes he was dead so she could start a new life. Her wish comes true when she flees for a Berlin art show with their daughter, abandoning him to his loneliness and neuroses. His only salvation comes in the form of a MacArthur “genius grant” giving him the resources to create any sort of theater project he desires. Wanting to create something spectacular before he dies, he enlists thousands of actors and crew members to create a scale-model of a city in which the actors play real people in a mock version of life itself.

It sounds like a genius idea and no doubt, writer/director Charlie Kaufman is a bonafide savant with stories like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” to his credit. “Synecdoche” could’ve been a wondrous, uplifting, modern-day fable. However, if you’re familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s previous works, you know “uplifting” is not in the cards.

Instead, “Synecdoche, NY” becomes an exercise in tedium for Kaufman who doesn’t seem to have enough self confidence to transcend his masochistic self-indulgences. His main characters are always a reflection of himself: Awkward, depressed, unlucky, neurotic and difficult to identify with. All writers believe that writing is a form of self-therapy, but I personally believe Kaufman takes that practice to an unhealthy extreme. He pours every ugly thought from his head onto the page then paints it across a screen for all to see. Judging from this film and his past works, it’s obvious he is incapable of leaving his personal problems out of his stories. Sorry, Charlie, but I don’t care to know about your creepy real-life obsessions and bodily dysfunctions. I doubt the audience does either.

The story itself is simply too dense. It starts off linear, with brilliant touches of quirk and humor that leave you hopeful that the story is building to something meaningful. Eventually, surreal components get introduced and time seemingly becomes irrelevant as the main character endures the harshest miseries imaginable (e.g. losing his daughter, then finding her years later as a tattooed, underage stripper in Berlin who incorrectly believes he molested her). By the end it’s a depressing, multi-layered, metaphysical mess that would drive a dozen Einsteins insane before coming to an intelligent conclusion. Believe me, I love dense movies like David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” but that puzzle of a movie is merely a newspaper word jumble when compared to “Synecdoche.”

Despite the overall failure, several moments of beauty give the audience a brief glimpse of what could have been. At one point, a proxy character steps in to express feelings that the real character never had the courage to say. In another poignant scene, Caden recalls a heartbreaking memory about his daughter when she was young and innocent. Even Adele’s microscopic paintings that require magnifying glasses to view give the film a hint of optimistic magic. However, the overall pessimism of the film dashes those positive moments from the mind of the viewer long before the end credits.

Like Caden, Kaufman should’ve never gotten carte blanche to write and direct whatever he wanted (and possibly the film itself alludes to this notion). Even geniuses need an objective voice of reason to reel in their moments of artistic overkill. Sony Pictures made a similar mistake in unleashing “Donnie Darko’s” brilliant writer/director Richard Kelly to create “Southland Tales” without any objective meddling. The result was a creative, critical and financial disaster. As in Kaufman’s past efforts, letting go of the material and allowing a sharp, thoughtful director to take a crack at translating the story would’ve been the reasonable choice. After “Synecdoche,” I have no desire to see his unbridled directorial efforts again. “Synecdoche” is far too confusing for intellectual critics, much less a general audience.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I posted the trailer for this film a few weeks ago, so instead I’ll post the trailer for Kaufman’s first and far superior writing effort, “Being John Malkovich.”

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