Synecdoche, New York


Four stars (R)

“We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are, for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die. Each of us really believing we won’t.” — Caden Cotard

Synecdoche (noun): a figure of speech by which a part is put in for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage). —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Synecdoche, New York, which begins in the city of Schenectady, N.Y., marks the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation (screenplay), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (screenplay) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (screenplay and story).

Between the quote, the definition and the fact that Charlie wrote and directed it, you probably have assumed that the movie is freaky and challenging, with a fanciful premise but a grim overall tone.

You are right.

So is Synecdoche, New York a chore to watch? Is it unrelentingly dreary and depressing? Is it unacceptably dense? No and yes. If it grabs you, as it grabbed me, the movie becomes an invigorating interactive experience. Seeing and hearing the workings of a human mind deconstructed on screen made me reflect on my own ways of dealing with life. Yes, the lead character, playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a terribly depressing guy and his big artistic project is as dense as it is ambitious, but the movie is not a chore to watch because it transports you to a fascinating place and puts you into a contemplative state of mind. Of course, if that doesn’t happen to you, I imagine you’ll exit the theater muttering words like “pointless,” “pretentious” and “miserable.”  

The story: Caden Cotard has found success directing plays in Schenectady, N.Y. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him to pursue her artistic career overseas, taking their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her. Caden is sick a lot — psychosomatic? — and frequently sees a therapist (Hope Davis) for his emotional issues. He receives a great deal of money to pursue the project of his choice and moves to NYC, where he rents a warehouse and hires a massive cast to reconstruct the lives of others, including himself, his companion Hazel (Samantha Morton) and many, many more. The project goes on and on, with Caden’s hired doppelganger (Tom Noonan) and Hazel’s (Emily Watson) acting out his reality in front of him. And contributing ideas.

There’s a lot more, including a new wife (Michelle Williams), a hostile caregiver (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a female actor (Dianne Weist) with an intriguing proposition, but you get the general idea. The massive work-in-progress serves as a recreation of the human mind, and we are invited to examine how it functions and how we function. At least that’s what I think.

I often compartmentalize, taking thoughts and problems I find too troubling and putting them in mental boxes on some back shelf in my noggin, which works well in the short term, but can really screw you up after a while. On occasion, I have been in situations so overwhelming that I disassociated, separating from myself and watching the actions of my body from several feet away. You’ll see examples of both in the movie, especially the latter. Synecdoche, New York had me calmly studying how I work as I witnessed the elaborate depiction of a mind in front of me. I reflected on life and death without becoming too scared.

You may also find the movie transformative. You may interpret it differently. You may find it to be a load of bleak navel-gazing hooey. You may choose to see Bolt or Twilight instead. I wonder what you’ll think, and how?


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