Thursday, October 20, 2011

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman, the man behind such interesting screenplays like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Being John Malkovich" tries his hand at directing one such outlandish script of his own, "Synecdoche, New York" (A play of words on "Schenectady, New York", and the concept of "synecdoche" itself!).


Beginning on a rather mundane note, the film introduces us to theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife - a budding artist Adele (Catherine Keener) and his daughter Olive. Caden and Adele's marriage is on the rocks. While Adele isn't happy with Caden, Caden clearly is still attached to Adele and Olive. Caden's new play meets with a lot of success and critical acclaim. Soon after, Adele takes off to Berlin to pursue her art further, with her daughter Olive, promising to return about a month later. In the midst of all this, we are also introduced a perpetually stoned Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Claire, the actress (Michelle Williams) and the comely box office girl at the theater, Hazel (Samantha Morton) who has the hots for Caden. We gradually learn that Caden suffers from a variety of physical ailments including some unexplained skin lesions and a nervous disorder suppressing his autonomous functions.

The Charlie Kaufman angle to the story begins one day when Caden receives a MacArthur Fellowship that bestows upon him financial means to pursue his artistic interests. Determined to give the aid its worth, Caden begins working on his masterpiece, a larger than life stage play that would be unparalleled and honest, more close to real life than anything else. As the play and its characters begin to take shape, the lines between reality and the play script begin to blur and Caden loses all sense of time and place and so does the audience......


There are various themes explored in "Synecdoche, New York". There is a constant sense of death, decay and sickness going on right from the beginning. The TV screen shows an animation of a virus, the magazine Caden receives in his mailbox has a cover page speaking about disease and cure, the milk in the fridge seems to have got spoilt, and so on. Olive seems to think something is wrong with her 'cause her stools are green! Caden keeps reiterating too, that he "doesn't feel well". There are numerous visits to doctors, a particularly scary seizure that Caden experiences (one of the finest pieces of acting I've ever seen...Hoffman is more than convincing!). With physical decay there is also a decay of moral values, of failed marriages, extramarital stints, eventual guilt and an innocent little girl being exposed to the risqué business at an early age with her body being tattooed at the age of 10...!

There is a constant feeling of loneliness and longing throughout, as the protagonist experiences it. Then there is the delusion, particularly the "Cotard Delusion" (perhaps, hence the name "Caden Cotard" for the main character?) .

Several other motifs abound, like the "scale" with which both artists work. While Adele makes "miniature" paintings and the size of her paintings diminishes as time and the film itself progresses, Caden's work becomes larger and larger in the form of the life-size replica of New York in a warehouse! It also reflects the theme concerning bridging the gap between dream and reality, as Caden's dream begins to take shape in reality...or does it? The theme of "play within play...within play...." Is stressed upon throughout, as lookalikes brought in to play real life characters, end up having more lookalikes to play the lookalikes! Just like Sammy (Tom Noonan) is brought in to play Caden, and another person is brought in to play Sammy. It is all an endless cycle....a never-ending quest for something (perhaps an exercise in self-realization for all those involved) that seems to reach no conclusion. The stage production goes on for a whopping 17 years when one of the crew members points it out to Caden. It is only then that we, the audience, realize that so much time has indeed passed! 

Kaufman tries to do justice to his highly surreal story but does he succeed? Well, almost! It should be noted that there is a strong resemblance to Federico Fellini's masterpiece "8 1/2" as far as the main theme is concerned. Just as Guido in that film tries to build an ambitious film project brutally honest and closer to life from his own personal experiences, Caden embarks on a similar mission. The difference being, Guido suffered from a Director's block, Caden didn't! Parallels can also be drawn to David Lynch's "Inland Empire" as far as the "play within a play" motif is concerned ("Film within film" in case of Lynch's film).

"Synecdoche, New York" is all well-intentioned...there are quite a few terrific scenes embedded in the script. There is a sense of despair and sorrow throughout that works in the film's favour. Kaufman really got himself involved in this project and it shows. Only there is such a thing as being too involved! It almost seems that just like his lead character Caden, Kaufman got too engrossed in making his dream project that is this film and got lost somewhere in the maze of delusion himself, so what could one say about us audiences! While the film maintains considerable coherence for almost the first 80 minutes, it seems to spiral out of control after that. Lynch's "Inland Empire" suffered from a similar syndrome but Lynch, being Lynch, managed to make up for the muddled script with enthralling imagery and intriguing surprises along the way! Alas, not everyone is David Lynch and hence, making a surreal film isn't everyone's forte. Kaufman tries very hard, makes a strong attempt and almost gets close to making a winner, but falls a tad short, nonetheless!
That doesn't take away Kaufman's credibility though, and praise must be showered where it is due. Some of the themes/episodes in "Synecdoche, New York" ooze brilliance and are quite unique. Like the house that is eternally on fire, is one awesomely bizarre idea! And for some strange reason that particular part reminded me of the Coen Brothers' underrated flick, "Barton Fink"! Kaufman directs really well, until the last few minutes when he struggles to maintain the tautness in the script 'til he finally takes to the film's bleak conclusion. The editing by Robert Frazen is commendable. Chronologies are shuffled but the timeline is lucid enough to comprehend.

The performances are spectacular. Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves a standing ovation for his magnificent performance. Only one wishes he didn't mumble his lines as much in some of his scenes! Amongst the ladies, it is Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton that emerge clear winners. Robin Weigert and Jennifer Jason Leigh impress in their respective miniscule roles but don't get much to do, unfortunately.

Charlie Kaufman's efforts are noteworthy and "Synecdoche, New York" is not a film that should be ignored. Yes, it is self-indulgent... yes, it is somewhat incoherent. But that said, yes, it is also essential viewing. Give this film a chance; it is worth your time, simply because it isn't something you get to see every day. Oh...and regardless of the comparisons, don't go in expecting another "8 1/2"! 

Score: 8/10