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Synecdoche, New York: Frustrating, Unsettling, and Worth It

Synecdoche, New York, is a haunting film. In the weeks since I saw it, I'm not sure a day has gone by that I haven't thought about it. It's also a humongous, confusing mess. But I'm willing to forgive Charlie Kaufman that; the high points are too high not to.

As the writer of such films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman has become known for his surreal — and, yet, ultimately, very real — explorations of humanity. Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, is maybe his most precise work on that theme, tracing his main character through years of middle age, declining health, and the potent desire to do something while there's still time. Kaufman may be suffering from a bit of that desire himself, as he tosses all kinds of twists into his story, some of which lead it astray. But that doesn't keep it from being a moving mood piece of a film.

Synecdoche, New York actually has a mostly logical main story: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a local theater director producing a lowish-rent production of Death of a Salesman and struggling to maintain his marriage with his more-famous wife, Adele (Catherine Keener). When she takes off for Germany with their daughter and Caden receives a MacArthur grant, he decides to stage a giant-scale theater piece about life (yes, just that: life), setting it inside a towering replica of New York. Everything else spins off from there, so just


Beyond that general outline, trying to make sense of Synecdoche, New York is largely a losing battle. It's best to just take the developments as they come — oh, of course Caden is seeing himself as a TV cartoon; naturally, that's his daughter all grown up and covered in tattoos. The plot is not necessarily the point; it's more about what the plot evokes. And what it evokes (other than some powerful, sweeping images) is a deeply unsettling feeling about what it means to grow up and grow old. Illness is a major presence, as Caden stumbles into affliction after affliction — some from unfortunate coincidence, some from unknown cause. Time is practically a character of its own, with Kaufman occasionally fixing the story at a given point and then drifting from it, letting his audience wonder if it's been weeks, months, or (in one case) 17 years since a particular event.

Not everything works: The subplots involving Caden's family life and sexuality feel particularly flimsy and occasionally even uncomfortable. But in the world of Caden's theater piece, things start to click. Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and Emily Watson deserve a chunk of the credit for that, as they deftly play the three women drifting in and out of Caden's life. Each of their performances is subtle and yet memorable, a particularly notable feat considering that before the film is over, they've each played a version of the same character. And to say too much about Tom Noonan's role would spoil it, but suffice to say it speaks directly to the movie's central theme of identity.

Watching Synecdoche, New York can be a frustrating experience. There's so much that doesn't make sense, that doesn't fit that just doesn't seem possible. And yet at the end, as I watched the credits roll over a gorgeous, haunting tune (Jon Brion's "Little Person"), I felt like I'd just had a cathartic cry or some really intense therapy. Synecdoche, New York has its stumbles, faults, and flaws, but in the end, the experience is worth the trouble.

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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