Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York


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Charlie Kaufman is far from your standard screenwriter. Involved in some of the most bizarre and brilliant scripts of the last decade – Being John MalkovichAdaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to name but three – he’s one of film’s few true innovators, moulding complex plots and conflicted characters like the proverbial Play-Doh. But his most recent creation, Synecdoche, New York, may overtake all his aforementioned films in terms of weirdness, craft, and possibly also in quality.

A strong statement, perhaps, but Synecdoche is an existentially twisted movie which makes Fight Club seem as facile as Dude, Where’s My Car? At points it’s witty, philosophical and surreal: Kaufman’s hallmark, almost Herzog-ian commitment to madness here is typically high-concept and incredibly audacious.

Playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman on astonishing form) has marital and mental trouble, and his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) decides to leave and take the couple’s young daughter Olive with her. Caden is constantly worried that he’s about to die and his emotional bipolarity seems to know no bounds. Shortly after his wife and child leave, Caden is granted a ‘genius grant’ for his work, an award which gives him unlimited funds to produce a theatre piece of his choice. Stumbling across a mammoth venue in the titular Synecdoche, he decides to create a full-scale recreation of the town itself, complete with actors playing every inhabitant, including himself.

If that sounds too odd for your palette, then this is not the film for you. The existential plot only weaves further mazes as the line between reality and imagination becomes blurred, almost beyond recognition. However, despite the patent strangeness of Synecdoche, it’s still a thoroughly beguiling movie. Hoffman’s Cotard, a hugely flawed character who ages as the movie progresses, is always magnetic and seemingly beyond salvation; as the unquestioned centre of the movie Hoffman is as watchable as he is bizarre, suffering an endless stream of medical ailments and emotional traumas, combating woes both creative and marital with no conceivable happy ending possible. Hoffman’s ability to play the put-upon genius (see also: Capote) is at its very finest here, his Cotard is a narcissistic hypochondriac whose myriad medical complaints are only outweighed by the lunatic scope of his artistic vision.

Kaufman’s direction is handled wonderfully, showing the ethereal, real and surreal with equal skill, and the fact that he eschews clear differentiation between each layer of consciousness makes the film dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic, from a viewer’s perspective. Somewhat akin to watching a zoetrope’s spin, the film endlessly yet fascinatingly repeats a series of events: you’re unsure where it’s going to end, but you’re thrilled nonetheless.

Time will certainly aid the digestion of Kaufman’s unashamedly complex film. Its dual worlds of surreal fantasy and proto-documentary collide but never conflict, translating into a movie which is probably better suited to re-watches than any other released in the last few years. Intelligent, intricate and as original as they come, Charlie Kaufman may have finally written a move that’s as odd as he is. And one that’s just as brilliant.

10/10 – A complex analysis of the human mind and the burdens of ‘genius’  – a term which surely now befits its director. Posing questions about the human condition without pretending to proffer answers, Synecdoche is a gem of a film which is as intriguing and brilliant as its creator. Embracing and discarding layers of philosophy as frequently as a snake sheds its skin, Kaufman’s film will slither into your consciousness and leave a mark you’ll have a tough time shaking off.

Bizarre? Yes. Surreal? Absolutely. All the better for it? Certainly. Essential, mind-bending cinema.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.