Review of Synecdoche, New York: Charlie Kaufman, 2008 US
The latest piece of work from visionary writer Charlie Kaufman is also his directorial debut and the film which some critics are calling his masterpiece. Here is my take on the themes in a film which sees Philip Seymour Hoffman’s put-upon theatre director given the chance to create his life’s work.
‘Synecdoche’ means ’simultaneous understanding’ and is a figure of speech in which ‘a term denoting something is used to refer to the whole thing’. Thanks for that Wikipedia. This will go a long way to helping one understand a film which attempts to answer questions about the irrelevance of one individual;s life and what can be done to achieve a measure of greatness in one’s life. Another thing you will have to do before seeing this is have a little bit of knowledge about the writer and first time director for this project: Charlie Kaufman. He is the writer behind Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) and Adaptation (2002). Both are films which take a lot of patience and thought to decipher, and this one is no different.
Poster for Synecdoche, New York which gives clues to the film’s narrative (provided by Wikipedia)
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the forty-something theatre director whose life appears to be going nowhere just as he is about to experience one of the most painful, soul-destroying mid-life crises yet seen! He is married to the increasingly distant Catherine Keener, with whom he has a four-year old daughter. When she leaves the nest with their offspring his problems really begin to kick in. He is given the opportunity to produce a piece of work by which he will be historically remembered and decides to direct a play based on his own (everyday) life. The lines between what is real and what is staged are blurred, to put it lightly. Though hard to sit through, this film is unreal in the sense that is so original that it just has to be seen. Synecdoche relates to each one of our lives as a single event and how, given the bigger picture of time, the Earth, death and so on, we don’t even scratch the surface of recognition or significance. Our lives are a procession of misguided hope or despair during which we never quite reach our peak or are given credit for the things we should be. The fact that his wife was able to just up and leave with their child has been interpreted by myself as the lack of legal equality that a man now has in the Western world as far as legal paternal matters are concerned. In fact, Kaufman is clearly stating that equal rights and opportunities has gone too far, a point proved by Dianne Wiest’s character towards the end of the movie. Also, listen carefully to what the preacher says towards the end.
Wow! Kaufman’s resolutely labyrinthine script covers a lot of ground, some points are made very briefly but are there nonetheless, as the writer strips away all the glamour of life and presents us with so many experiences that we have all been through, some more than others obviously, as he tries to personally talk to everyone who may have an interest in watching Synecdoche. Kaufman is a true original and this may prove to be his masterpiece as I think he is saying here what he has been trying to say through his scripts for some time. The demands of modern life are at times so great, as we go from friendship to friendship, relationship to relationship, job to job and so on, that we all would love to assert some kind of control over events which seem to be uncontrollable and affect our lives in ways that we would have preferred them not to.
It is shown here, though, that familiarity also breeds contempt. This is a mammoth film but not the most enjoyable watch, though there are some funny moments that should bring iconic smiles to faces. I admit I am blown away by the ambition of Synecdoche, New York, and an almost frightening level of scope as Kaufman attempts to deconstruct our lives and ambitions and ask us whether it is all worth the trouble. Yes, a depressive movie but an important one. You will have to be interested in the study of film and a keen observer of life, or a Kaufman fan, in order to really enjoy this. I really respect what he’s achieved here. 8.5/10.