Synecdoche, New York

Director    Charlie Kaufman
Starring    Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson
Release    24 OCT (US) 15 MAY (UK)    Certificate 15
2 stars


25th May 2009

The mind of Charlie Kaufman is a baffling place, as anyone who has seen Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind will know. This is Kaufman's first time in the director's chair; he also wrote and produced the film. Much like the scene in Being John Malkovich with dozens of Malkovichs about the place, Synecdoche is Kaufman Kaufman Kaufman with no diluting influence. The result is ambitious, thought-provoking, maddening, unsettling and altogether a rather unpleasant viewing experience, leaving you with the feeling of stepping off a boat after a long voyage at sea.

[gallery] Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatre director living with his artist wife Adele (Keener) and their young daughter. He's working on a production of Death Of A Salesman, while gently flirting with actress Claire (Williams) and box-office attendant Hazel (Morton). So far, so normal. After a minor accident, Caden goes to hospital for stitches and is referred to an Opthamologist because his "pupils don't work". Around this time, Caden's body, mind and life begin to disintegrate around him. His wife moves to Germany, he develops grotesque sores all over his body, he loses all notion of time passing. The narrative skips about, there's no way of knowing what is real and the surreal is accepted as the norm.

Caden is awarded a genius grant to allow his artistic vision to breathe unimpeded by cost, practicality, or indeed reality. He obtains a massive warehouse and builds an apartment block, which becomes a street, which becomes a city. He casts actors to play himself and the people in his life, agonisingly replaying the scenes in his own life in a controlled environment. As his body slowly gives up on him, he reaches for immortality by creating multiple selves. Each morning he dishes out notes to the actors telling them what will happen that day - he plays God, controlling everything in the artificial reality he has created. Only, the actors themselves then become 'characters' in his own life, so then he must employ actors to play the actors and potentially this could go on and on and on...

The peculiar civilisation Caden has created keeps on multiplying, getting more complex all the time like a great big blob of bacteria. The only thing that will make it stop is death and frankly, you find yourself wishing Caden Cotard would just hurry up and die.

There are some fine performances in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman is dependable and shoulders a difficult movie well. Tom Noonan is excellent as the actor who plays Caden and this is one of the most interesting relationships in the film, but sadly it doesn't really go anywhere. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the antagonistic friend of Caden's wife with great gusto, providing a bit of comic relief as she wrestles Philip Seymour Hoffman to the ground, quite literally.

The film is littered with references to Kafka, Pinter, Miller, great minds Kaufman seems eager to align himself with, making Synecdoche self-consciously cerebral. Visionaries such as Kaufman should be championed and no doubt there are those who will champion Synecdoche, but many Kaufman fans will be left feeling ungratified by this film. There are some Kaufman hallmarks there - metamorphosis, disorientating time shifts, the fluidity of 'self', exploration of memory - but the playful quality that made his previous films so appealing is oddly lacking. It is like a visual essay, interesting sure, but cold and scholarly. Perhaps this is Kaufman's way of testing himself as a philosopher/artist/director, or perhaps he is testing the boundaries of cinema, or perhaps he is testing his audience. It's a brave experiment, but a failed one.

So what next for Kaufman? Perhaps someone will award him a genius grant and he can create a self-perpetuating neurotic mess in a warehouse somewhere. This is hardly life-affirming stuff - in fact it's death-affirming stuff. On leaving the cinema you can't help but feel everything is futile, starting with Synecdoche, New York.

More:  Drama  Weird
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