December 4, 2008


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Synecdoche, New York (R)
Philip Seymour Hoffman becomes his own art in Synecdoche, New York, a movie written and directed — and possibly over-written and erratically directed — by Charlie Kaufman.

Near as I can reproduce it, “synecdoche” is pronounced “sin-ek-doe-key” not like Schenectady, the city in New York that this title is playing with and where the characters at least sometime appear to live. Synecdoche means “a figure of speech in which a part or individual is used for a whole or class or the reverse of this.” My dictionary gives “bread for food” as an example but I’ve heard “the stage” used to mean “all of dramatic theater” as another example. I wonder if you could also use “navel” when you mean “entire person’s physical and emotional makeup” as in “wow, does Charlie Kaufman spend a lot of time gazing at his navel.”

Caden Cotard (Hoffman) also spends a lot of time with his head bent over his belly button, or, as it were, deeply embedded in another part of his anatomy. After losing his first wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and winning a MacArthur genius grant, he sets out to examine life by meticulously recreating it in a theater piece. He sets up shop in a giant hangar auditorium thing where he begins to build a city, one with many of the apartments and buildings from his own life. He hires an actor to play him and when he hires an assistant for himself, a girl named Hazel (Samantha Morton), he must also hire an on-stage Hazel (Emily Watson). At one point, he finds himself in a one-night stand with the on-stage Hazel because the real Hazel is dating the actor playing Caden (Tom Noonan).

When I said he “lost his first wife Adele” she didn’t die but sort of slipped away to Berlin, following her art. Everybody disappoints you as you get to know them, she tells him as she leaves, giving us, more or less, the movie’s theme. Thusly, Caden messes up relationships and his theater piece — which continues to add actors and sets even as it never opens to an audience — sprawls into something so big that it becomes a kind of nothingness in itself. Life marches toward death until you can’t tell the difference between the pain of life and the hope of death.

Oh, the despair.

Much like the end of life, when you might be willing to take “death” over “more of this suffering,” in this movie’s last 45 minutes or so I might have been willing to consider death over more of this movie. Death, or at least ear plugs. Synecdoche, New York is funny and smart at times but it can also be overly precious and too smart. Hazel buys a house that is on fire. It’s a perfect house for a single person, she says to the real estate agent, but I don’t know about the fire. Yes, it is a big decision, the agent says. At one point, Caden sees a therapist (Hope Davis) who gives him books full of self-help clouds of nothingness and aggressive come-ons. The cartoons his daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) watches are of and about him. I heard another movie critic describe this film as a movie set entirely up Charlie Kaufman’s bum. But I don’t know if that statement fully captures the obsessive self-examination, the soaking-in-Kaufman quality of this movie — a quality that goes from being quirkily clever to tiresome to agonizing. This is a movie goes up his bum, out his eyeballs and back up again. It is as if that moment in Being John Malkovich, when Malkovich jumps into the portal to his own head, stretched on for infinity.

Parts of Synecdoche, New York work well, especially if you are predisposed to like this kind of thing (you know, the pain of living punctuated by heartbreaking moments of beauty, the comedy of seeing your own horribleness, all the fun stuff). But these parts are not enough to carry you through the whole two hours. I suppose this disappointment is so very representative of life, ever so brilliant in its recreation of the crushing nature of regret. The problem is that if you’re predisposed to like this kind of thing you (and I include me in that “you”) probably have the contents of your own head for this kind of doom. Who among us needs to pay $7.50 to visit somebody else’s depression? C

Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. Written and directed Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York is two hours and four minutes long and is distributed in limited release for Sony Pictures Classics.