Synecdoche, New York – Film Review

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Screenplay by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Rating: ★★★½

After writing very well received screenplays for over a decade Charlie Kaufman turned to directing in 2008 with his film Synecdoche, New York; a tale of art, life and death. At the time it received polarising reactions, being hailed as either a masterpiece or a self-indulgent mess (and sometimes both at the same time). It deals with the usual themes that Kaufman deals with, alienation, mid-life, artistic struggles and death. In many ways it is the ultimate Kaufman film, it feels like everything he’s made before and somehow even after is building to this.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) is a theatre director who is obsessed with every detail of his work. With increasing illnesses and grower ever distant from his wife, Adela (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich), his life is starting to fall apart and he is becoming increasing aware and scared of his own death. After his wife moves to Berlin, with their daughter, Caden wins the MacArthur Fellowship grant and wants to create a piece that is full of truths inside a gigantic warehouse in Manhattan.

Hoffman is fantastic as the insecure aging theatre director. There’s a nervousness and vulnerability that his brings in each scene that really captures a man wrestling with his own insecurities while trying to create a masterpiece and at the same time wrestling with his own mortality. At times it feels like Caden is just waiting to die. Life passes by very quickly, he has a second child, but doesn’t remember their name. He’s not present and misses out.

At the beginning of the story, Caden is working on an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with the twist of casting young people in all the roles. The themes of Miller’s play are mimicked and reflected in Synecdoche, New York. There is a sense of never being able to achieve the dream and always chasing something. Caden never finishes his play always chasing the realism and truth he has been chasing, in a similar way that Willy Loman is chasing wealth in Salesman. Miller’s play also deals with a blend of reality and delusion with flashbacks that blend into the present, similarly Kaufman explores a dreamlike state full of imagery that feels a step away from reality.

There is a lot to unpack in this film. It’s something that you have to pay attention to and it rewards you for thinking a little bit about the world it creates. There’s a house that is constantly on fire, which Hazel buys despite worrying the fire will one day kill her. Kaufman said in an interview with the New Yorker that this was about the choices we make resonate for the rest of out lives. There’s an interesting use of scale throughout. The scale of Caden’s convoluted play grows beyond realism, with his set recreating much of New York, while his ex-wife’s paintings get smaller and smaller. You can bring your own meaning and analysis to the film and it really rewards you for engaging with the film in this way.

Even though the film is under two hours, it feels about seven. It’s an exhausting ordeal watching this and at points it does feel like hard work. There is a lot in the film, but when you get to the end and only two hours or so have passed it’s hard to grasp that so little time has gone by. It feels like a lifetime, which I think works for the film but probably not for everyone.  

The film sums itself up at one point, with a character explaining that we spend most of our time before being born or dead, the bit in the middle we spend waiting for something to happen never really understanding how quick the moment it. It’s a poignant moment in an exhausting film. This film is a piece of art and is something that will either get better with each re-watch or collapse in on itself.

On a side note, I did spend a lot of this film with the lyrics to Limelight by Rush stuck in my head and I think it fits nicely. (I know it’s paraphrasing Shakespeare) All the worlds indeed a stage and we are merely players/Performers and portrayers/Each another’s audience outside the gilded cage.

About ashleymanningwriter

Young Adult Fiction writer. Horror and fantasy blended together.
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6 Responses to Synecdoche, New York – Film Review

  1. R13 says:

    It is not every day that I witness such a blasphemous opinion on the internet! Not only do you have the nerve to not give my favourite movie a 10, but you alsoー I’m just kidding. I love how there are many literary devices at play, especially the reference to Tennessee Williams with the house on fire. To paraphrase what I wrote about it before, you’re absolutely right. This is one of the HEAVIEST movies I’ve ever watched. The movie only is technically two hours, but there is a LOT to unpack and the movie itself feels like 7 hours (maybe even longer). I definitely acknowledge that it’s not for everyone as well. What are your thoughts on the fact that the character Caden is changing his identity throughout the movie?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you for commenting. I did wonder what you would think when I posted it. To be honest, a fair amount of the references probably went above my head, but I don’t think that matters. I didn’t know about Tennessee Williams and the house on fire. I will probably have to look into it further.

      I think it’s interesting how his character changes. He’s a very fragmented character, who literally recasts himself as a woman at one point and I think like a lot of Kaufman’s lead characters very unsecure in himself. I do wonder how much Kaufman puts himself into the characters, because so many of them seem to struggle with themselves.
      I also like the way that he casts someone as himself, who almost becomes a more daring version, being more forward with Hazel. He never seems quite present, and I think the way the film skips through life seems to reflect that.

      I will watch this film again at some point, I think it is something that will change with each viewing and I’ll pick up on things. I’m going to give it some time because it is a draining film, I think that’s all the more credit to it and Kaufman. It’s never boring or unengaging, but it did feel like I was mesmerized in something that felt a lot longer than what it was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • R13 says:

        I think the closest we can discern about Kaufman is the portrayal in Adaptation. as well as in interviews. From what I noticed, Kaufman himself seems rather nervous and introverted. I’m not sure how much is true in Adaptation. (or Nicolas Cage’s take on Gemini Man I guess… in 2002), but Kaufman is rather withdrawn in interviews. He is also rather very direct when talking, so the portrayal in Adaptation. is definitely exaggerated (on purpose).

        I find the whole parallel between Catherine Keener’s character and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character to be fascinating. It doesn’t stop at the whole idea of producing art (Caden with his theatre piece and Adele with her paintings) but also the diseases in my opinion. Caden is obsessed with his illness and death, whereas Adele is obviously sick (her character introduction is literally a shot showing her coughing) but ignores any sign of sickness (like how she treated her daughter in the beginning). The cough still continues after she moves, so I interpreted it as her still being sick and not getting attention. Caden is constantly thinking about his health and death, almost all the time, on the other hand.

        I believe the house on fire imagery is a reference to this particular quote: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” ー Tennessee Williams

        Here’s something I observe whenever I rewatch: I tend to be watchful for all the Tom Noonan appearances. Also, check out the lyrics to the songs that Kaufman specifically wrote for this movie. It adds a lot more depth in my opinion. There’s literally a track in the score titled “Song for Caden”.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting. I’ll have to look up the songs and read the lyrics. You’ve made me want to watch it again a lot sooner than I originally planned and I will keep an eye out for the Tom Noonan appearances. I didn’t notice Adele coughing, but will also keep an eye out for that. It’s an interesting quote from Williams and it definitely fits.

        Have you read Kaufman’s Antkind? I’ve seen all of his films now, so feel like I need to read the book, but I’ve heard very bad things about it. Almost nothing positive.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. R13 says:

    For some reason, couldn’t reply to the previous comment. Guess we’ve exhausted the number of replies. Anyway, I heard that some of the criticism of Antkind was included in the script for I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I haven’t read it yet (Antkind), but I think I will at some point. P.S. Not a lot are familiar with the fact that I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) that Iain Reid was a co-producer of the entire project.

    Liked by 1 person

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