Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener
Charlie Kaufman is the most original writer in modern cinema. His latest, Synecdoche New York, is a typical blend of reality, surreality, meta-surreality and neuroticism. But after a string of unconventional literary masterpieces, Kaufman has come up with something so mind-boggling in its ambition that there’s barely any point in trying to sum it up. But here goes...
Meet Caden Cotard (Hoffman). Caden is a theatre director. Living up to his surname, he genuinely thinks he’s dying – obscure diseases, skin infections, brain malfunctions, he’s got them all. Miserably married to successful artist Adele (Keener), Caden’s life is a perpetual chain of failure, loss and illness; while his production of Death of a Salesman goes well, his family falls to pieces. “I fantasise about him dying,” admits his wife in therapy. Awfully funny though it is, the truth is that so does he.
Can Caden achieve anything of worth with his life? Can art ever represent the true nature of reality? After his wife leaves for Berlin, taking with her his daughter Olive, Caden gets the chance to find out. He receives the ‘genius grant’, an unlimited amount of money to fund an artist’s production of something big and meaningful. For Caden, this project is a simulacrum of his own life spanning an entire warehouse; a synecdoche of New York and of himself. He’s helped along by his assistant, Hazel (Morton), who lives in a house that is perpetually burning down. Together, they construct an artistic anti-reality, or a dramatised hyper-reality, in which everyone Caden knows or has met is a character acted by an actor, including himself.
As relationships evolve on set and off, the cast begin switching identities; eventually, a woman is playing Caden and Caden’s a cleaner, vacuuming Adele’s Berlin apartment. Growing in scale and vision, Kaufman’s concept contorts to create a bewildering ball of timey-wimey emotional disappointment. The cast do well to keep up, Hoffman in particular – his depressing, logic-defying existence is near impossible to portray. Supported by Morton's wonderful cat-like chemistry, and a confident Keener, he leads an epic band of performers, who work to ensure every moment connects on some level, tickling funny bones and tugging heart strings with the screenwriter’s typical sincerity. The production design, too, is immense; the screen becomes a flurry of activity, demanding repeat viewings just to appreciate the visual gags layered into every scene.
Charlie Kaufman is the most original writer in modern cinema. But a director too? Synecdoche's brilliance is almost too convoluted, its intricate intensity hard to absorb. Like Michel Gondry’s solo effort, The Science of Sleep, perhaps Kaufman needs a creative partner to achieve perfection. But ay, there’s the rub, for this would remove the core of the piece; at its heart, it is a personal exploration of the human condition, Kaufman’s most thorough examination of his own mind. David Lynch-like in its aspirations, Synecdoche New York is an arc without narrative, a flawed, poignant project which leaves your brain buzzing and your heart throbbing.
Synecdoche New York is one of the most unique experiences you'll ever have in a cinema. It's dense, difficult, but somehow delightful.