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Dustin Putman

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Synecdoche, New York  (2008)
4 Stars
Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan, Sadie Goldstein, Robin Weigert, Josh Pais, Alice Drummond, Michael Higgins, Deanna Storey.
2008 – 124 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and sexual content/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 16, 2008.
The moment we are born, we begin hurtling toward our own deaths, and there's no stopping it. We are all victims of the same ultimate fate. Schenectady-based stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is well aware of this sad truth. A possible hypochondriac or just a bearer of bad luck, he has become obsessed with a plague of autonomic medical maladies, any one of which he believes could send him to an early grave. On the television, a cartoon character with his likeness croaks in one nasty end after the next. Caden is currently putting on a revisionist play of "Death of a Salesman," casting young twenty-somethings in much older roles as a way of telling the audience that these actors, too, will end up alone and gasping their last breath like the characters they are portraying. When distant artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) criticizes Caden's creative worth in putting on a revival rather than originating his own work, it stings him to his core. And, when she and four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) head to Berlin alone for work, leaving Caden behind, it becomes apparent that they won't be returning anytime soon. After fetching box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) propositions Caden, he turns her down. "My wife is on vacation," he tells her. "She's only going to be gone a month." "A month?" Hazel skeptically responds. "It's already been a year."

"Synecdoche, New York" is the astounding, at times dangerously unwieldy directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (2002's "Adaptation"). The picture, just about as surreal as David Lynch on his quirkiest day, is at once staggering, baffling, morose, frightening, hilarious, continuously inventive, and unspeakably touching. Like Caden, Kaufman has set out here to make his filmmaking masterwork, a cinematic exploration so thematically rich and boundlessly meaningful that it also works as a piece of art to be looked at and deciphered in different ways by each individual viewer. The conventional laws of linear storytelling do not apply, almost every scene set weeks, months or even years after the last. This can be disconcerting at times, but in the best way. The film, like Caden, like ourselves, uncontrollably careens to its final demise, the passage of time moving at such a rate that all we are able to take from it are key memories and events that make up a life.

With Adele having tearfully left him and with his daughter only able to speak to him through the diary he finds in her bedroom—fascinatingly, through the years, Olive's entries continue on well past the last one she scribbled as a child of not even five—Caden has no choice but to attempt to move on. His romantic relationship with Hazel, who, in the meantime, has hesitantly bought a house literally in flames, is snuffed out nearly before it begins. When she temporarily moves on, marrying and having triplets, Caden finds something of a muse in the beatific actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams). They, too, wed and have a daughter, though Caden hardly notices.

As his fruitless preoccupation in finding Olive plagues him, Caden rents out the biggest warehouse he can find, so enormous that he proceeds to build a full-size replica of Manhattan, complete with an exhaustive troupe of actors, each one with their own three-dimensional roles to design and fill out. His madness-infused attempt to orchestrate the most complex, grandly-scaled, never-ending play ever made becomes his life's mission, and his already splintering psyche's downfall. "When are we going to get an audience?" one of his ensemble players asks him one day. "It's already been seventeen years."

It is difficult to put into words all that writer-director Charlie Kaufman is trying to say with "Synecdoche, New York," not because it is muddled or confused, but because it is so ambitiously layered and refuses to follow any set of rules or guidelines viewers have been predisposed to expect from the cinema. As compelling as it is intentionally jarring, the film breaks from reality even as it speaks in vast detail and insight on universal topics that we can all relate to. From its seriocomic look at family life and the relationships that connect us all, to our desire to make a lasting imprint on a world we are surely going to leave behind, to the choices we do or do not make and live to lament, to the notion that time is bigger than our mortality, leaving us in the dust—these and many more existential topics are touched upon with a vivid, knowing, mournful eye.

As downbeat as its tone is, humor, much of it satirical, plays a substantial part in Kaufman's tapestry. After Adele leaves him, Caden returns to his marriage counselor Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), who is only so happy to help him but makes sure he leaves with one of her published self-help books, overpriced at forty-five dollars. Reading it on an airplane, when he reaches the part where Madeleine writes that she will always be with him for support, he looks across the aisle to find Madeleine seated next to him. Hazel's meeting with her realtor to walk through the house she is thinking of purchasing, smoke and flames surrounding them, is absurdist comedy at its most pointed. Also quite amusing is Claire's skewed reasoning for why she trusts in a doubtful Caden's artistic vision: "The first step to knowing your purpose is the recognition of not knowing."

Philip Seymour Hoffman (2007's "Charlie Wilson's War") is faultlessly cast as Caden Cotard, his shlubbish looks and tender vulnerability perfect in capturing his character's desperate search for greater meaning. When he comes into contact with Olive as a wayward grown woman, her writhing nude and tattooed body on the other side of a one-way mirror, Caden's reaction is nearly too painful to watch. Likewise, when they finally do meet face to face, decades passed and Olive only knowing him from the lies her mother has told her, it is devastating. The rest of the ensemble is like an explosion of talent, with Samantha Morton (2002's "Minority Report"), Michelle Williams (2008's "Deception"), Catherine Keener (2008's "Hamlet 2"), Hope Davis (2008's "Charlie Bartlett"), Emily Watson (2002's "Punch-Drunk Love"), Dianne Wiest (2007's "Dan in Real Life"), Jennifer Jason Leigh (2007's "Margot at the Wedding") and Tom Noonan (2008's "Snow Angels") all delivering knockout supporting performances that stay with the viewer.

Lovingly photographed by Frederick Elmes (2005's "Broken Flowers")—the sight of New York City existing in a warehouse, a zeppelin floating overhead, is something to behold—with the beautifully poignant song "Just a Little Person," written by Charlie Kaufman and performed by Deanna Storey, appearing multiple times as a sort of Greek chorus, "Synecdoche, New York" boldly and proudly makes a place for itself as a one-of-a-kind motion picture unlike anything else that has existed before. As the film winds around to the finish line, its plot within a plot mixing reality with fiction and actors playing the parts of actors playing the parts of actual characters, Caden is abruptly met by a series of deaths quickly cornering in on him. As his time approaches, the picture solemnly and with overwhelming despair leaves him to take a look at the life he chose to lead. Does he like what he sees? Was he able to achieve all that he set out to do? No, not really. There hasn't been enough time, and there's been too much regret. Isn't that the tragedy of it all?
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman