Synecdoche, New York is Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. Kaufman, if you don’t know, is the writer of such offbeat films such as the John Cusack starrer Being John Malkovich, the Nic Cage vehicle Adaptation and the Jim Carrey led Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Having this knowledge should give you some understanding of what you are in for here. Synecdoche boasts another strong actor in the lead role as Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a lonely theater director struggling with his health, his relationships, and his work. All the while, Cotard is trying to create his masterpiece play, which includes a massive replica of New York city inside a warehouse in NY’s arty theater district.
Cotard is a man not living life to the fullest and for some reason the world seems to be crumbling around him. His wife Adele, a brilliant miniature artist, takes their daughter to Berlin, thus leaving him as his health begins to decline. His illness is impossible to pinpoint, as various doctors from different professions all fail to diagnose what ails him. A woman that works at his theater holds feelings for him, but as a married man, he is reluctant to see where that might go. His therapist appears to be hitting on him. Throw in a possible relationship with his lead actress and it’s easy to say, the man has 99 problems and girls are more than one.
Throwing himself into his work, a strange dynamic begins to form as his ideas for what should take place in his magnum opus, a play without a name, become increasingly unconventional to say the least. Cotard begs his actors to search for truth and thus he hires other actors to follow the original actors around, when they are all simply acting out life, inside the brutal honesty of the play. It’s a bit exhausting, as the lines between what takes place in the play and real life blur to a fuzzy haze. To describe much more of the plot would only serve to further confuse and potentially ruin the experience for the moviegoer. As Johnny Carson used to say, this is weird, wild, wacky stuff.
This is Kaufman, so there are crazy scenarios like a house that continues to burn throughout the years, Americans taking on German accents, and artwork that is about one-inch square in which you need a magnifying glass to view it. Most of this is not just abnormal to most filmgoers but perhaps it’s even insane. However, it’s also likely brilliant. Kaufman is either on some incredible drugs (100 times more powerful than that “Pineapple Express!”) or has creativity pouring out of his fingertips. Who knows? Maybe even both.
This is a challenging film with a great cast in place to bring Kaufman’s vision to life. Joining Hoffman are the talents of Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, and Hope Davis, just to name a few. The movie turns the lens inward, making you search for meaning and answers. It is up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions, as so much of what is on screen are laid out as metaphors for something else. Like Cotard says while directing one of his rehearsals, “There are millions of people in the world and none of those people are as an extra. They are all leads in their own stories.” You are the lead in the stories of your own life and if these are the sorts of ponderances you like to examine upon leaving a film, you owe it to yourself to see this creative and zany wonder.
One footnote: For a limited time, the one-inch micro artwork under the Adele Lack name is being displayed in the Montalban Gallery in Los Angeles. If interested, look it up and check it out, then go and see the film!