Synecdoche New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan
Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut and marveled at how incomprehensible and impenetrable it was, but acknowledged that a great movie was in there somewhere, I just had to find it. Rewatching the film, while completely awake, without the burden of having watched three other films before that very day, “Synecdoche New York” has finally become the transcendental experience I couldn’t find the first go ‘round.
It’s certainly Kaufman’s most idiosyncratic work of all his films – the story of a depressed hypochondriac playwright who literally puts his life into his next play and vice versa. It assembles all the themes, elements, humour and distinctive characteristics of his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry and placed it all on an even grander scale.
Kaufman’s alter ego in this film is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre writer with a seemingly loving wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive. Caden appears to suffer from a series of escalating ailments, which has Caden thinking he’s close to death. His wife has a career as a miniature painter – she paints really tiny canvases that can only been seen with a magnifying glass – and suddenly she finds herself becoming more famous as a bohemian contemporary artist. When fame calls she quickly dumps Caden and leaves for Europe with Olive. With his heart shattered Caden puts his life into his work to create his true masterpiece of the theatre.
In order to see into his own soul, Caden decides to hire an actor Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself who is writing and playing the production of this ultimate play. Except the ultimate play is a real time dramatization of his life. Even his assistant Hazal (Samantha Morton) gets in the act and casts an actress, Tammy (Emily Watson) to play herself. Since Sammy is playing Caden, like a true method actor Sammy wants to hire someone to play him, and so another version of Caden appears. Get it?? The real Caden falls in love with his assistant Hazal, but is confused when he develops an attraction to her alter-ego Tammy – same goes with Caden’s double. Get it??
Any narrative confusion disappears quickly on its second viewing, freeing the viewer up to soak up the film’s dreamlike melancholy. First time viewers will find Kaufman’s emotional core the rock solid anchor, conveying an overarching theme of the introspective artist with surprising clarity. The details in between are constructed like a stream of consciousness writer running wild without an editor - a David Lynchian nightmare from the perspective of Charlie Kaufman.
There are some truly wonderful Kaufman-esque moments. Caden’s wife Adele disappears early in the film after she moves to Germany, but her burgeoning career is referenced in numerous subtle ways. Adele is given a parallel existence alongside Caden’s, which we see in various media coverage placed innocuously in the background. I was reminded of that dramatic shift in “Being John Malkovich” when Craig Schwartz suddenly becomes a star puppeteer with a skyrocketing career.
There’s much in common thematically with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, both films take place over a long period of time, and depict aging in remarkably profound ways. Unlike the steady flow of time in Fincher’s film, Kaufman’s time frame is erratic. With little warning, the film moves forward years in time without any traditional transitions to bridge the gap. The second half of the film has a snowball effect of temporal paradoxes. The closest metaphor to use is one of those MC Escher paintings of a man walking down a set of stairs without moving anywhere. Though the film takes places over 40+ years, with Hoffman gradually getting older via prosthetic face make-up the film doesn’t appear to move anywhere. The effect is that feeling of, ‘where did the time go?’ With Caden engrossed in his work, time literally flies by, when suddenly one of the crew members says, “when are we going to get an audience in here, it’s been 17 years.”