Cinema | The Polarizing Express: It’s OK to find both the self-indulgence and the brilliance in Synecdoche, New York 

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Rex Reed of The New York Observer has already proclaimed it the worst movie ever made. Roger Ebert has embraced it as a masterpiece. This is why critics yearn for a subject like writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it’s why we probably also dread it. n

For a professional critic, polarizing cinema—the stuff of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers—can seem like an oasis after the latest week of Madagascar: Escape 2 Redundancy. Whether you’re getting your hate on or lavishing praise, it’s a chance to dig into something really worth digging into. But it’s also a kind of trap; you risk coming off either like a sputtering reactionary, or one o’ them ee-leets who tells you why all the weirdness makes sense even if you, poor layperson, aren’t quite clever enough to get it.


Kaufman—the mind-bending screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—doesn’t waste time announcing that he’s ready to screw with your head. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—a hypochondriac theater director in the upstate New York town of Schenectady—awakens one morning to a radio program announcing that it’s the first day of autumn. By the end of breakfast, various other radio announcements, the morning newspaper and even the expiration date on the milk carton have sent Caden, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) into early November.


If you’re already lost in chronological confusion by the end of this scene, you’ll never throw down enough breadcrumbs to find your way back out again. Kaufman spans decades over the course of the film, but the passage of time is never tidy. Weeks blend into years; Olive’s 4-year-old diary begins to include details from her entire adult life. The “gimmick casting” Caden employs for his production of Death of a Salesman—young actors playing older characters—becomes an overarching notion as well, attempting to convey the rocket pace of lives that seem to be over before those living them grasp how to give those lives meaning.


Just in case that was too simple and obvious for viewers, Kaufman launches Caden on a massive, decades-long theater project that creates a microcosm of his own life on a hangar-size sound stage. The story within the story develops a matryoshka-doll level of nested complexity—there’s an actor playing Caden in the play he’s directing, so of course there’s eventually an actor playing the role of the actor-Caden that the real Caden is directing—while the city outside the sound stage disintegrates into chaos. Is Caden himself the “synecdoche”—a part metaphorically representing the whole—standing in for a humanity so self-obsessed that it fails to engage with the world?


It’d be kind of ironic if that’s the point. There’s plenty of thematic meat on the bones of Synecdoche, New York, but Kaufman so often gets caught up in his own flights of fancy that he seems to make no effort to connect them to something larger. Caden often finds himself either confused over the difference between similar-sounding words, or attempting to explain which meaning of a homophone he intends; a bizarre ailment forces Caden consciously to generate saliva when he eats. Kaufman seems to relish pointless silliness like having a character rattle off the names of her “twins”: “Robert and Daniel and Alan.” He’s driving this crazy bus, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to drive in anything resembling a straight line.


This is the kind of stuff that can infuriate viewers who believe that abstract art is daring them to “get it.” I’m also not convinced that “getting it” is even necessary for enjoying the experience. It may be inexplicably bizarre that Caden’s adored-from-afar assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton) lives in a house that’s perpetually on fire, but the device inspires half a dozen different hilarious gags. Individual moments of longing and loss are staged with a genuine beauty. And as he builds to a climax, Kaufman’s favored theme—people struggling to find a happiness that always seems to depend on something external—combines with Jon Brion’s score for a surprising emotional punch.


At the end of it all, is Synecdoche, New York a pseudo-intellectual dead end? Is it a heartbreaking work of staggering genius? More likely, it’s something between the two. And perhaps more important, for any movie lover numbed by familiarity, at least it’s something.



nPhilip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener
nRated R

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