Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. Fresh off of a successful production of Death of a Salesman, he has traded in the suburban blue-hairs and regional theater of Schenectady for the cultured audiences and bright footlights of Broadway. Armed with a MacArthur grant and determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can put his whole self, he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a small mockup of the city outside. As the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden’s own life veers wildly off the tracks. The shadow of his ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a celebrated painter who left him years ago for Germany’s art scene, sneers at him from every corner. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele’s friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He’s helplessly driving his marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) into the ground. Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), the actor Caden has hired to play himself within the play, is a bit too perfect for the part, and is making it difficult for Caden to revive his relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. His is second daughter, Ariel, is retarded. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. As the years rapidly pass, Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece. Populating the cast and crew with doppelgangers, he steadily blurs the line between the world of the play and that of his own deteriorating reality. As he pushes the limits of his relationships, both personally and professionally, a change in creative direction arrives in Millicent Weems, a celebrated theater actress who may offer Caden the break he needs. By seamlessly blending together subjective point-of-views with traditional narrative structures, writer/director Charlie Kaufman has created a world of superbly unsteady footing. His richly developed cast of characters flutter between moments of warm intimacy and frightful insecurity, creating a script that brings to life all the complex and beautiful nuances of shared life and artistic creation. Synecdoche, New York is as its definition states: a part of the whole or the whole used for the part, the general for the specific, the specific for the general.(Imdb)
The Guardian, Friday 15 May 2009
For his directorial debut, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has outdone himself, for good or ill, with the strangest, saddest movie imaginable, a work suffused with almost evangelical zeal in the service of disillusion. It’s a film of mad Beckettian grandeur about the terrible twin truths of existence: life is disappointing and death inescapable. And it supplies a third insight: art is part of life and so doomed to failure in the same way.
The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration. It has brilliance, either way: surreal, utterly distinctive, witty, gloomy in the manner that his fans will recognise and adore, but with a new epic confidence, absorbing the influences of Fellini and Lynch. As with his previous films, Adaptation and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I had the uneasy feeling that one single idea was being extruded to an excessive length, but this movie’s crazy emotional intensity and ambition really punched my lights out on a second viewing. And that protracted final sequence is quite extraordinary, in which the dying hero is instructed what to think and do, via a voice through an earpiece, while he stumbles through the wrecked stage-set of his self-created existence.
The early comedies and short stories of Woody Allen are a perennial source of inspiration for Kaufman, and he may well have found particular impetus from a scene at the end of Annie Hall in which Allen anxiously watches two actors playing out an autobiographical scene he’s written: he’s anxious, dissatisfied. The scene is a disappointment: it doesn’t nail his experience, but as life itself is disappointing, perhaps this failure has an ironic integrity.
Kaufman proposes a theatrum mundi of his own. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a miserable and hypochondriac theatre director living in Schenectady, New York, a place-name that whimsically mutates in the title, though nowhere in the script, to that obscure literary-critical term “synecdoche”, meaning an image in which the part stands for the whole – for example, “head of cattle” meaning cow, or “crown” meaning king. The significance of this emerges later.
Caden is unhappily married to Adele, played by Catherine Keener, an artist who clearly wants out of the relationship, and Caden is deeply dissatisfied with the middlebrow saminess of the work he’s doing: an unadventurous revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is also terrified by the possibility of sexual adventures with women who are very available: Hazel, who works in the box office, played by Samantha Morton, and his callow, sexy leading lady Claire, played by Michelle Williams.
Yet just when things are at their darkest, Caden improbably receives a letter to say he has won a “genius” grant to create a challenging, powerful, and above all truthful artwork. Thrilled by this opportunity to transcend the mendacity and mediocrity of the culture industry, Caden has a wild new plan. He will purchase a rundown city-block, construct apartment buildings and fill them with actors who will improvise entire created “lives” of unflinching reality and pain on a 24/7 basis. Years and decades pass while his company rehearse and improvise with no audience. Caden hires actors to play himself and his lovers. Head-spinningly, the gulf between theatrical make-believe and reality collapses.
Of course, the action of the film can’t be taken literally: no “genius grant foundation” would have enough money to sustain such a crazy scheme. Yet neither is it supposed to be a fantasy: this is not merely what Caden is imagining he might do. It is Kaufman-reality, unreality, irreality, and the film won’t have the same impact if you are not prepared to grant it some kind of “reality” status. It adjoins reality – and this, I think, is where “synecdoche” comes in, the part for the whole. Caden’s huge, mad, pasteboard world stands for the real world, is part of it, is superimposed on to it, and finally melts into it.
The movie double-takes and hallucinates about itself, in ways that are captivating, exasperating. Its procedure is, in a way, recessive: disappearing down, down, down into an Alice-rabbit hole of a modified future reality. The narrative leapfrogs ahead in sudden fast-forward leaps. Caden’s kid is four – no, wait, she’s 11, living in Berlin with her mother and dissolute lover – no, hang on, she’s in her 30s, tattooed, messed up, working in some pornbooth. Before you know it, she’s on her deathbed, angrily accusing a decrepit Caden of abuse.
The insane theatrical fabrication of all this does not lessen its impact. On the contrary, it gives it a hyperreal intensity. Time itself jump-cuts and makes Caden suddenly older in spurts, until, through a bizarre twist, his own identity as the “director” of his life is taken over by someone more competent, and his individuality is annulled.
At the end of it all, you will feel as if you have lived through some crazy tragedy, swum a chlorinated Hellespont of tears. It is not for everyone, but is utterly extraordinary in its way. If Charlie Kaufman never does anything again, this will stand as his cracked monument.