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Synecdoche, New York A Bad Product of Confusing Logic

Synecdoche, New York
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
Sony Pictures Classics, 2008

If you’ve ever tried to write something creative, you might have gotten into a mode where a bunch of possibilities enter your head, and then those possibilities start to contradict each other, and then you may have gotten depressed that all your good ideas have started to defy logic.  Where will I be able to use this good idea that contradicts the other good idea?  I have a feeling that almost every cerebral time travel story has gone through the logic wringer.  Unfortunately, for coherence’s sake, you have to cut some things or live with being confusing.

Confusing is not a flaw, but undeveloped story ideas in the middle of a murky plot is.  Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation, has always put out some odd-bird stuff, and at least two of those examples have been churned into excellent movies.  Adaptation is where we began to see the inner workings of Kaufman.  It was, famously, his inability to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a movie that led to his writing about his inability to adapt it, to the point that Orlean was a character played by Meryl Streep and Kaufman himself was played by Nicolas Cage, as was his twin brother.  It was the equivalent of an actor who doesn’t have a monologue for his audition so the monologue then becomes about not having a monologue.

A “synecdoche,” as I have heard Kaufman himself describe, is a term meaning something along the lines of, “a part of a thing that ends up describing that thing,” in other words, The Empire State Building is New York City.  Synedoche is a homophone of the city of Schentectady in upstate New York, which is where this movie is set.  I can kind of see where Kaufman is going with this title after watching the movie, but it’s one of the many ideas on top of ideas in this flick.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling playwright in a marriage on the rocks.  And of course, Cotard’s wife Adele is played by Catherine Keener, in her ultimate specialty.  Cotard is putting on an adaptation of Death of a Salesman, and while it performs decently, it has been unfulfilling and has definitely not made any strides in his personal life.  Revealed to their therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis) is that they had their child Olive (Little Children’s Sadie Goldstein) to try to positively change the marriage, and now that this hasn’t worked, Adele is admitting that she sometimes dreams that Caden would die so she could get a fresh start.

Adele leaves Caden for Berlin, with Olive in tow, along with a pretentious enabler named Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  At the theatre, Caden finally has a chance to score with the box office chick Hazel (Samantha Morton), but can’t do so without his head getting in the way, turning her off in every way.  Eventually, he settles in with his actress Claire (Michelle Williams).  Time begins to blow by in an unconscious fashion.  In what seems literally like a week to Caden but is actually a year, Adele has become a hot shit artist in Europe.  Another five or so years blow by in the same fashion and Caden already has a 4-year-old with Claire.  But he’s making the same mistakes he always has.  And his true love, Hazel, has married a guy that lived in the basement of her house, one that is constantly on fire.

Caden gets a MacArthur Grant, and he plans on using this huge sum of money to make his dream play, one that requires a huge warehouse that can fit an entire replica of the city inside.  The actors of this monster play are encouraged to play it real, to get to the truth, to the point that it becomes life itself.  And just like that, 17 years go by with no plan of getting it in front of an audience.  Hazel re-enters Caden’s life to be his assistant, so therefore, an actress is hired to play Hazel (Emily Watson), and another man named Sammy (Tom Noonan) who has been following Caden around for twenty years becomes Caden.  This leads to some fairly interesting parallels, which could have been much better implemented in a true comedy.  Here, Kaufman is a little bit more melancholy about these proceedings even though it is a whimsical journey.  At the point where Dianne Wiest becomes Caden, this movie is on the tearing-your-eyes-out stage.

I love the idea of the exact replica of a city under a warehouse, to the point that another warehouse is built inside, to the point another warehouse has to go into that, and so on.  Kaufman’s ability to make us think about absurdities like this is one of his greatest gifts as a filmmaker, and in Synecdoche, New York, we have a bunch of those.  I just wish he could have stuck with the absurdities: I no longer cared about Adele and Olive once they leave Caden, but a great chunk of the movie is diverted in his quest to re-connect with his daughter and his old life, a series of misadventures that are incredibly depressing in a movie with such creative fervor.

The movie reminds me of the thought Woody Allen has in Annie Hall, “I think we try to make things perfect in art because it’s too hard in real life.”  It’s an interesting thought in Synecdoche that Caden has an imperfect life, and then tries to include all of those imperfections in his art, and it becomes his downfall.  While I truly commend Kaufman on all of his ideas about art in this movie, I still wish he could have pared this down a bit and focused better, because this could have been a pretty awesome mindbending flick when all was said and done.  He might have benefited from allowing someone else to direct this.  As is, this movie is overall too tedious to recommend even though it can occasionally be worthwhile.

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