SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK(director/writer: Charlie Kaufman; cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; editor: Robert Frazen; music: John Brion; cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Caden Cotard), Samantha Morton (Hazel), Michelle Williams (Claire Keen), Catherine Keener (Adele Lack), Emily Watson (Hazel, as a double), Dianne Wiest (Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Maria), Hope Davis (Madeleine Gravis), Sadie Goldstein (Olive, 4 years old), Robin Weigert (Olive, adult), Tom Noonan (Sammy Barnathan); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Anthony Bregman/Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze/Sidney Kimmel; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; 2008)
“More like an interesting treatment for a movie than an actual movie.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Charlie Kaufman is the legendary writer of Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He makes his directorial debut in this creative and most original showbiz psychological drama. It suffers from a second half lapse that runs out of steam after a fast start, as it becomes lifeless, melancholy and not that cinematic but more like an interesting treatment for a movie than an actual movie.
The title is a play on words between Schenectady, N.Y., and synecdoche, an odd word that acts to corrupt the name of the location. later we will learn that the ironic title “synecdoche,” which refers to a word for part of something that’s meant to represent the whole, becomes the driving force of the director’s life as he puts on a play about his complete life story. The story is really about Kaufman, as it follows his alter ego as brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman over time changes appearances, stresses out over a bad marriage, women troubles, loss of his daughter to a strange and spiteful woman, battles loneliness, a mysterious degenerative medical condition, hypochondria, aging, gets stuck finding out the brutal truth about himself, dealing with writer’s block and trying to create in his lifetime a masterpiece stage play that is impossibly ambitious.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, an unfulfilled middle-aged pretentious artistic regional theatre director in upstate Schenectady, New York, putting on a version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with a young unknown cast. Caden has a rocky marriage with his nagging successful miniature painter wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) and a loving relationship with his adorable but whiny 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), whose radioactive-green feces (courtesy of living in a GE town) is ignored by her self-absorbed parents even though she’s quite vocal about it. After an unsuccessful try at marriage counseling with a phony flirtatious self-help book promoting writer/therapist named Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), Adele splits with the child to Berlin to live with her best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a lesbian relationship. Maria and Caden are natural enemies and intensely hate each other, and she raises Olive to hate her father and encourages her to have a body filled with tattoos of flowers starting at the unlikely age of 11.
The director’s life is coming unraveled, as he’s impotent when trying to score with the big chested 36-year-old theater box office cashier Hazel (Samantha Morton) and he is physically coming apart while he’s busy treating his array of psychosomatic and real illnesses and becoming increasingly depressed. But things change when Caden receives a lucrative MacArthur genius grant and moves to NYC to make a realistic grand-style play about life, not only his life but everyone’s life he is even remotely involved with, as he uses enormous warehouses as stages to be replicas of the city and hires thousands of actors.
The second half of the film has Caden age into a man in his sixties with nagging physical ailments and slowly but surely the line becomes blurred between reality and art, as his fertile mind has created a universe that absorbs everything around him. The director marries the leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams), who was in his hit Arthur Miller play, and who then plays his wife on the stage. He then hires Sam (Tom Noonan) to be his double and alter ego; he’s someone lanky and not resembling him physically, but who prior to getting the part secretly followed him around for twenty years. The other double is for the flirty married former box office cashier Hazel (the double is played by Emily Watson), as the original Hazel (still played by Morton) becomes his personal assistant (and is also an alter ego) when her jealous husband leaves her and she’s fired from her lab job and out of pity gets hired by the director. When the director’s creative juices stop flowing, the actress who played the cleaning lady, Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), volunteers to direct the project while Caden switches places and takes her part as the cleaning lady.
It’s a bizarre puzzling film that covers a variety of subjects from the mundane to dating to death. It’s an overly ambitious film that must be seen more than once to be fully appreciated, as I saw it three times and had different feelings each time (which might be a sure sign of this being a cult film that will be around for a long time and fated to be rediscovered with every new generation as more a provocative film that a great one). It very well might be a near masterpiece as far as the screenplay alone goes, but it’s an exhausting watch that never fully coheres in the execution of its inspirational genius with its heady chaotic madness into a narrative flow that takes us down a far-out psychological stream of consciousness. But, again, it is provocative, as the words are cerebrally tingling and it’s a one of a kind film that defies pinning down or completely understanding. Its backbone and mainstay is Hoffman as the neurotic artist who has gone over the edge and has been consumed by his work to the point where he is pushing on with his messy life in both a narcissistic and self-deprecating manner, whose legacy will not be his tawdry life but what his unfinished work might ultimately mean in the scheme of things and, for him personally, whatever he can make out of his dreams.
REVIEWED ON 3/18/2009 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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