Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.20.08


A Man Down
The writer of Eternal Sunshine directs his first film
by Jason Blair

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK: Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Cinematography, Frederick Elmes. Music, Jon Brion. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest and Hope Davis. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. R. 124 minutes.

Years ago, Bob Dylan was asked about the chaos in his music. “Chaos, clocks, watermelons. It’s everything,” was Dylan’s reply, a response which captures to a large degree the multitudes contained by Synecdoche, New York. After writing some of the most cleverly inside-out films of the last decade, including Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman returns with Synecdoche, a film about art and aging that, while not as satisfying as his earlier films, cannot be said to lack their ambition. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York

Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sees bad news everywhere he looks. A theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., he reads the obituaries the way most guys read the sports page, pouring whatever passion remains into his production of Death of a Salesman — a production that, by the looks of things, doesn’t amount to much. Such diversions don’t leave Caden much time for his wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of canvasses so miniscule it takes a magnifying lens to see them. Since Caden is stiff-jointed, fatalistic and feces-obsessed, it comes as no surprise that Adele feels closer to her friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fact to which the couple’s counselor Madeleine (Hope Davis) seems completely, narcissistically blind. When Adele can’t make the opening night of Caden’s play, you sense the end of their union is near; when she leaves for Berlin with their daughter a few days later, it might indeed be seen, as Caden muses, as “the start of something awful.”  

That depends on your point of view. While Caden suffers Adele’s rise to fame as an artist, it isn’t long before he’s bestowed with a MacArthur “genius” grant, allowing him to create something as deep and lasting as, well, as his loneliness and misery can generate. It will be the play to end all plays, says Caden, a grand statement about “earth and death and life” — and dating, among other matters. One of the problems with Synecdoche is how in the latter half of the film, the darkly woven mysteries hinted at early on — why does Caden have no sense of time? Why does Madeleine imply Caden might be dead already? — wither and grow frail as Caden assembles a living monument to his suffering. Granted, the film is about aging, but does it need to feel creaky as well? As Caden sets out to capture the world in infinite detail, the film fractures like a fragile bone: Using characters and events from his entire life, Caden populates a city-sized warehouse wherein he assembles, for the next 40 years, a vast alternate reality that mirrors his lived experience.

Heady stuff, even for Kaufman, a certified master at depicting alienation and isolation. Late in Synecdoche, some delicious possibilities arise: When someone’s real-life husband leaves her, Caden’s reaction is that they need to find the actor playing him and fire him. But the line between complexity and confusion is very fine here. As in The Truman Show, every actor, every extra is essential, but Synecdoche lacks that film’s focus and easy interplay with ideas. Synecdoche is strange, but it isn’t always sensical; at times, it even feels smirky. It is largely redeemed by a vivid female cast including Samantha Morton as Caden’s wonderfully sweet true love and Michelle Williams as his lifelong muse. Diane Wiest shows up late, but her role is profound; as the world outside the warehouse gets more dangerous, chaotic and perverse — and as the actors Caden uses begin to die off — she helps Caden find the resolution he’d been seeking. By focusing so relentlessly on himself, Caden finally finds something universal.

Synecdoche, New York opens Wednesday, Nov. 26, at the Bijou.