The word "synecdoche" is defined as a figure of speech in which a part of a word is use for the whole of it. Yeah… that pretty much sums up the lack of sense of Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. Even trying to pronounce half of the title is a task in and of itself, never mind trying to grasp what the movie could all be about. But strangely it's a compelling and satisfyingly ambiguous piece of work that features superb performances and poses so any questions that multiple viewings is absolutely essential.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a troubled theatre director who, after being awarded a MacArthur genius grant, attempts to create an ambitious, gigantic play in a gargantuan-sized set of New York inside a warehouse. He has health troubles, women troubles, family troubles, and all the while is trying to figure what his play actually is about and how he's going to finish. To explain the plot any further would be an act in futility on my part.
The majority of Synecdoche, New York makes little to no sense, even upon further inspection during a second viewing. It starts off like a normal story about a troubled theatre director and his ambitious new project, but we learn quickly that this isn't going to be your run-of-the-mill movie. It takes us down the rabbit hole that's inside the world within the rabbit hole… and then takes down another one after that. But much like David Lynch's masterpiece Inland Empire, I imagine Kaufman didn't intend for the movie to make sense… or at least I think he didn't.
Hoffman is perfect for the role of Caden; he gets to play that awkward, likable despite his flaws, shlubby character that we all know he can play in his sleep. Surrounded by amazing supporting performances from the likes of Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hoffman goes through the fractured, layered narrative talking about the philosophical intentions of his play… and yet he seems to know nothing. Caden seems very much intent on keeping the characters as much in the dark as we are, with things happening out of blue that sometimes bother the characters and sometimes not. It's all a bit of a head trip.
What shines through clearly here is Kaufman's inexperience as a director. Three of his previous screenplays, the brilliant Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, had Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, respectively, behind the camera to guide them and keep them semi-comprehensible so they could thus be enjoyed by a pretty wide audience, despite the weirdness inherent within them. However, with Synecdoche, the shackles are off and it doesn't have as good an effect. It's about the only thing that holds the movie back, the thing that ultimately stops it from being accurately labeled a masterpiece. Kaufman is a much better writer than he is a director, and one only wonders just how phenomenal this thing could have been had someone like Jonze or Gondry directed it instead.
Having said that, in some ways the lack of comprehensibility is part of Synecdoche's appeal. It's a surreal film filled with surreal events and goings on. Morton's character is going to buy a house which appears to be on fire, and yet she buys it anyway and lives in it for an unknown amount of years as the fire continues to degrade it. Caden notices lumps under his skin; he busts his head open on a wayward sink accessory, his leg starts to shake uncontrollably. His wife and daughter inexplicably move to Germany, the latter becoming some sort of tattooed model/stripper. Now there's either a deep meaning to all of that (just a few examples of the crazy, miffing stuff on display throughout) or it's just something Kaufman thought would make for interesting viewing. But that's part of what makes Synecdoche such a fascinating piece of work – you could spend the entire movie watching closely, just trying to figure out what it means, if it even means anything.
On an aesthetic level, Synecdoche, New York is a visually beautiful film. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, Hulk) makes the movie look soft and subtle, a kind of inviting look that defies the fairly inaccessible and confusing nature of the whole thing. There is a gorgeous score from Jon Brion (who also did Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), which is simultaneously pessimistic and yet strangely hopeful — a reflection of the movie in general.
There's not much more that can be said about Synecdoche, New York. It's a drama and a comedy… or is it the other way around? The moments of comedy are filled with pain, truth, and sadness. Its moments of drama have a vein of comedy running through them. It's all interwoven. It's a film about many things: life, love, despair, monotony, aging, illness, hopefulness, happiness, sadness, confusion, enlightenment… I could go on and on. But above all, the movie's fractured and confusing nature is exposing that same aspect of real life. At least I think it is; then again maybe not…