Synecdoche, New York (2008)

DVD Cover (Sony Home Entertainment)
Charlie Kaufman Charlie Kaufman
Philip Seymour Hoffman Philip Seymour Hoffman
Catherine Keener Catherine Keener
Sadie Goldstein Sadie Goldstein
Tom Noonan Tom Noonan
Peter Friedman Peter Friedman

7.6 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Genres: Drama, Psychological Drama, Showbiz Drama
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Review by bluemeanie
Added: November 16, 2008
This might be the toughest review I will ever have to write. Not because I was expecting a great film and was somehow disappointed. Not because I don't have the adequate words to explain how much I loved the film. This is a tough review to write because - how do you explain a film that you just don't understand? Roger Ebert's recent review was glowing but made certain to point out that it took him multiple visits to the film to truly understand it, and he's not sure he really does. But it's not one of those David Lynch films where the whole point of the film is that you're not supposed to know what's going on; "Synecdoche, New York" is much smarter than that. This is a film that is definitely going for something and I get the feeling that it achieved it, but I just can't wrap my head around what it was. Does that mean I disliked the film? Absolutely not. In fact, it might be the most imaginative and awe-inspiring film of the year. But I can't say it is my favorite film of the year because I don't know what writer/director Charlie Kaufman was trying to say. I assume it had something to do with the human condition and our pre-occupation with life and death. I assume it had something to do with the power of the human imagination. I assume it had something to do with both of those things. But, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. It needs further inspection.

Describing the plot to the film is futile, but I will give a brief assessment. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is just miserable. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) is an artist who leaves him early on and takes their daughter Olive with her. We are introduced to the girl who runs the box office, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who has a crush on Caden and probably vice versa. Towards the middle of the film, Caden receives something called a MacArthur Grant, which is a grant with a never-ending supply of money. Caden embarks on a journey to create the most amazing theatrical project ever - by replicating his community inside of a warehouse and basically creating his entire world over again. We never know whether we're in the now, or in a flashback or a flash forward, or if we're inside Caden's imagination. For all we know, the whole thing could be a dream. We just never know. The film ends with the same ambiguity. The film might seem like one man's search for true love, but it's so much more than that. Tom Noonan stars as a man who followed Caden around for 20-years before auditioning for the role of Caden in Caden's production of his own life. Now - try and wrap your head around that? Caden ends the film portraying Ellen, a house cleaner who worked for his ex-wife? Like I said - I cannot begin to explain what "Synecdoche, New York" is about - you need to see it for yourself.

In my personal opinion, Charlie Kaufman is the most creative screenwriter to ever life. Period. He is writing in a world all his own and at a talent level shared by no one. I dare you to find me one single writer who can create the kinds of visionary worlds as Kaufman. For years he has been testing our limits and toying with our imaginations, and here he pushes the boundaries further than he ever has before. I suspect "Synecdoche, New York" is his proudest achievement. And, as odd and as indecipherable as the film is, it maintains this confidence that it knows exactly what it is doing and exactly where it is going and exactly how it is going to end. It's not a mess. It's an educated mess. It's not confusing. It's inspiring. It's not bad. It's amazing. There have been many critics out there who just haven't known what to make of it. They want to say Kaufman just didn't handle the material well and its message was lost on the audience. I truly think this is a case where the message wasn't lost at all - the audience just wasn't sophisticated enough to understand it. And why punish an artist for being too smart for his audience? Beethoven was. Picasso was. People can attempt to analyze their works and explain them, but no one truly knows, other than the artist.

And imagine how difficult a film like this must be on the actors? You can't really have any kind of emotional stability. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes that uncertainty and turns it into one of the best performances of the year. This man cannot make a bad film. As Caden, he is everything the role requires and then some. As he grows older, so does Caden. Hoffman is an expert at playing this type of character and "Synecdoche, New York" is his grandest attempt yet. In turn, all of the female performances are staggeringly strong. Michelle Williams is wonderful as Caden's second wife, Catherine Keener is Oscar-worthy as Caden's first wife, Samantha Morton is marvelous as Caden's later love interest and Dianne Wiest pops up at the end for a breathtaking supporting performance. My favorite performance in the film, however, would have to be from the elusive character actor Tom Noonan who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this brilliant turn in a role that will hopefully continue to land him these kinds of plum acting roles. There is just not a weak link in the film and not a single role without relevance. Kaufman has assembled a masterful ensemble cast here, one of the best of the year, and they all seem to know exactly what he wants.

So, as I mentioned before, I cannot say this is my favorite film of the year. It's certainly the best. But I didn't enjoy it on a visceral level as much as "In Bruges" and I didn't enjoy it as much on an emotional level as "Nick and Norah". This film defies explanation so I guess the best thing I can say about it is - you will never see another film like it and you will never forget it. I am anxious to see where this picture ends up on my list at the end of the year. I wouldn't be surprised if it made it to the top and I wouldn't be surprised if it missed the list altogether. Like Roger Ebert, it's going to take multiple visits to the film for me to truly understand it on a deeper level. "Syndecdoche, New York", if nothing else, is a testament to Charlie Kaufman's immense brilliance and his ability to work on a level all his own. He might be the best director working today and this is his first film. He is certainly the best screenwriter working today, hands down. I want to encourage each and every one of you to experience this film for yourself. Let it envelope you.

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