Synecdoche, New York
d. Charlie Kaufman / 2008 / USA / 124 mins
Viewed at: The Box @ FACT (Liverpool, UK)
EDIT: The following review originally appeared on Suite101 (a collaborative publishing website that has since transformed into Suite.io). At the time, this blog entry contained a small excerpt, but here is the review in full:
Synecdoche, New York: The irrepressible Charlie Kaufman is at it again!
Released in the United States in late 2008 and crossing the Atlantic earlier this year, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is unmissable.
Those familiar with the Charlie Kaufman mind-trip that has taken place over the last decade will no doubt be more than familiar with the tight, yet freewheeling style of Synecdoche, New York. And yet something has changed – some kind of evolutionary leap has occurred since his last feature film credit – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – for which he won the 2004 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
For starters, he no longer relies on others to bring his worlds to life. While Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) have each approached Charlie Kaufman’s words with varying degrees of success, Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman all the way. Much more than just a writer making his directorial debut, this film feels almost like a coming out party for the most exciting mind in Hollywood.
But the evolution doesn’t stop there. While Kaufman’s previous scripts were certainly clever in all the right ways, eliciting squeals of delight from any film fan who was sick to death of the Hollywood obsession with three-act structures and dull cause-and-effect storytelling, they each seemed to fall just that little bit short. Knowingly clever, tirelessly witty and undeniably brilliant, they all lacked a real sense of emotional engagement with the characters.
With Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman has crafted a world as engaging, mystifying and frustrating as any of his previous efforts, the opening half hour promising a relentlessly dark comedic streak that is retained throughout. Soon however, we find Kaufman moving beyond the fractured examinations of personal identity we have come to expect, as he sets out to present us with a frightening vision of the terminal decline that faces us all. Comparisons to Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky may well be extravagant, but there are certainly shades of Tarkovsky’s darker, philosophical side in Synecdoche, New York.
Undoubtedly, like literature or theatre or a myriad other artforms, film is at its existential best when it provides its audience with an unequivocal, unrelenting depiction of the life of a single character. For Synecdoche, New York, that character is Caden Cotard, an unhinged theatre director played to the magnificent hilt by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And to Kaufman’s unending credit, Cotard’s world is entirely of itself. From the outset, and almost without exception, Cotard’s world is the world of the audience: we see women the way he sees them, we experience time the way he does and we decay along with him. Indeed, Kaufman has created such a totalistic world for Cotard that it hard to establish what is ‘real’ and what is ‘imagined’.
Manohla Dargis, film critic for the New York Times perhaps says it best in her review of October 2008: “To say that Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.” Indeed, trying to provide a simple description of a film such as Synecdoche, New York – let alone trying to write eloquently about it – is perhaps doing it a major disservice.
See the film, make up your own mind.