An ailing theatre director’s world becomes increasingly surreal as he obsessively tries to re-create a life-size version of New York City for his upcoming play.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a depressed theatre director who is increasingly distant from his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). Caden directs a well-received production of Death of a Salesman and unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, which he uses to stage an extremely complicated and elaborate production of his own making. Adele eventually leaves Caden and takes Olive with her, settling in Berlin and pursuing her art career full-time. Meanwhile, Caden begins to experience a variety of health problems, which adds to his own paranoia and hypochondria.
As Caden’s theatrical world becomes increasingly larger — both physically and metaphysically — his health begins to decline and the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly vague.
This film’s title is based upon the concept of synecdoche, in which something represents part of a whole, or vice versa, and is also a play on words of Schenectady, New York, where most of the film takes place. Synecdoche, New York is the brainchild — and directorial debut — of Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter of such surrealist fare as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
For what it’s worth, I had heard from various friends, cinephiles, and film industry colleagues that Synecdoche, New York was an underrated masterpiece that didn’t get enough credit when it came out. I also knew that the movie had developed a greater appreciation in recent years, particularly following the tragic death of leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman back in February 2014.
Synecdoche, New York premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and was a polarizing film, to say the least. It bombed at the box office, generating only $4.4 million on a $20 million budget. The late Roger Ebert called the film the best of the decade and claimed he knew from the get-go that it was a masterpiece. Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times also raved about Synecdoche, New York, calling it “sprawling, awe-inspiring, and heartbreaking” and “extravagantly conceptual”, respectively.
Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman stated “I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: the compulsion to stand outside of one’s life and observe it to this degree isn’t the mechanism of art — it’s the structure of psychosis.” The Washington Times also blasted the movie, claiming that it was “inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, replete with arthouse pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar.” Rex Reed of The New York Observer also panned Synecdoche, New York and named it one of the worst of 2008, while Jonathan Rosenbaum claimed it was more of an illustration of a script than an actual narrative film.
Kaufman repeatedly stated in interviews that he did not want to explain anything about the film, and refused to record a director’s commentary on the DVD, believing that Synecdoche, New York should stand entirely on its own merits.
Fair play, Mr. Kaufman. Now let me explain what I thought of your film.
Synecdoche, New York is 10% an actually intriguing character study and 90% pretentious, self-indulgent drivel. Kaufman is an extremely philosophical writer, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Anyone who has seen the previous films that he’s written will know this.
The entire point(?) of Synecdoche, New York is to show a theatre director’s natural fears of death and aging, and to visualize how his world is blurring the lines of fantasy and reality. While there are some decent enough emotional beats in the film, nothing is coherent enough to care about and the characters lose their appeal pretty quickly. The film is melancholy and extremely self-serious, to its detriment, and doesn’t have enough interesting elements or characters to do anything with all of its (admittedly weighty) themes. At the end of the day, Hoffman’s character is just a lonely, increasingly frail guy with wildly ambitious visions for an otherwise-straightforward play — no more, no less.
I have nothing against arthouse cinema or post-modern drama films; in fact, I can safely say that it’s a genre that had definitely grown on me in the past few years. Some of my favorite films are surreal and abstract movies that don’t immediately make sense — such as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the majority of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, the early films of David Lynch, etc. Some might call those types of movies pretentious or plodding, but they actually have a lot more going on than meets the eye and definitely improve upon repeat viewings. And even if said films aren’t your cup of tea, at the very least, most people can respect the details and vision of them and acknowledge what the director in question was attempting to say.
With Synecdoche, New York, however, I constantly felt like there was little to no depth in the storyline, despite my digging into the deeper meaning of the film after I watched it. I read critics’ interpretations of Synecdoche, New York and wracked my brain to no end after the credits rolled, but there was still no real point to it all. Again, the film does touch on a handful of valuable themes, but it misses the mark nine times out of 10.
I alluded to how self-serious Synecdoche, New York is earlier in this review, and that’s part of what takes the wind out of its unusually ambitious sails. This film is plodding and humorless, offering tantalizing moments of clarity and emotional weight that end up being nothing but philosophical mush in the end. So much of the surrealist moments and underlying tones of the film just doesn’t hit the audience the way it should, and even if it does hit you, you’re too busy scratching your head and trying to make heads or tails out of anything in it.
In addition, Synecdoche, New York is barely over two hours long, and it felt like four hours long when I watched it. The film’s only saving graces are A) a couple of genuine moments towards the end that were actually somewhat thought-provoking, and B) a tour-de-force performance from Hoffman, who, too often, is the only real thing giving Synecdoche, New York any forward momentum.
- Released 2008
- Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
- Produced by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Sidney Kimmel, and Anthony Bregman
- Director of Photography — Frederick Elmes
- Music by Jon Brion
- Edited by Robert Frazen
- Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh
- Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.