Sunday, March 18, 2012

Synecdoche, New York


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/6/08 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.


Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York tells the story of a playwright who tries to work on a play that goes on 40 years as he questions his own mortality and the women in his life as he struggles to create his most ambitious play yet. Inspired by Kaufman's own work in the theater, the film explores Kaufman's themes of surrealism and the creative process in this complex, high-art story. With an all-star cast that includes Kaufman regular Catherine Keener along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dianne Wiest. Synecdoche, New York is a high-concept, complex, and provocative directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman.

Playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has just mounted a play of Death of a Salesman that features a young actress named Claire Keen (Michelle Williams). While Cotard has a nice home life with wife/painter Adele (Catherine Keener) and their 4-year old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), an incident involving a sink has him going to doctor where he's ill with numerous diseases. After attending couples counseling with therapist Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), Adele leaves Cotard as she and her friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) take Olive to Berlin to venture into the city's art world. Caden befriends box office holder Hazel (Samantha Morton) as he deals with sudden success and own personal issues. While he and Hazel have a brief affair, Caden finds companionship with Claire as he receives a prestigious grant where he would stage a grand play based on his own life.

Claire joins Caden in the development of the play, Caden decides to stage it in an old factory where the staging of the play would become bigger for several years as he later marries Claire. After a trip to Berlin to meet Olive only to discover that she's grown under Maria's influence into a dark world. Caden's relationship with Claire falters as Hazel returns to his life as a married woman where she would assist Caden in the play's development. After casting an unknown named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) to play Caden, things become confusing prompting Claire to leave with their daughter Ariel while Sammy starts to put his own ideas about the play. When a British actress named Tammy (Emily Watson) comes in to play Hazel, things eventually become confusing as reality and fiction blurs for the overwhelmed Caden.

With Hazel hung up on Sammy, Caden tries to deal with Adele's success in the art world where he would sneak into her apartment and clean her place in the guise of a maid named Ellen. The character would eventually be played by Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest) where things would unravel due to Sammy's presence as he becomes too much like Caden. With his own health failing and learning about what Olive had become, many around Caden wonder if the play will ever open.


If Charlie Kaufman has a theme that's prominent with some of work, it's about the artist and how the artist struggles to create that great work. While scripts like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Human Nature, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind explore the mind of the creators in a humorous way. Synecdoche, New York is far different as the film explores an artist's mind as he creates something from his own life as it's continuing where reality and fiction blur. The film also explores death as this man is aware that he's sick and not feeling well realizing he's about to die. Yet, it becomes this long, 40 year period where he's trying to keep himself alive while seeing everything around him evaporate as well as his world between reality and fiction.

Kaufman's screenplay is definitely complex in this story about a man dealing with his own mortality and life with women as he creates a play about his life. Filled with funny dialogue, heartbreaking stories, and such. There's also something loose about the way Kaufman is telling the story as he has the characters make things up as they go along. While there's time where the idea of reality and fiction blur, Kaufman as a storyteller is trying to challenge the audience in the world of the creative process. The result isn't perfect depending on what type of audience Kaufman is aiming for as the pacing of the film and story drags at times. Notably its ending where people wonder how it's going to end as it's definitely drawn out. Still, Kaufman creates something with his screenplay that is definitely provocative and intelligent.

Kaufman's direction is definitely surprising as he uses some unconventional styles of coverage in creating the film. Taking his background in theater, he definitely uses many of the film's rehearsal scenes where the actors in the background are acting while whoever is in that scene are acting. Yet, Kaufman doesn't go for conventional styles of coverage as he sticks to where the emotion of the performances are as he's capturing it as he's just filming it and knowing when not to cut. Kaufman definitely has learned from people like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry where as a director. He's definitely creating a style of his own. While there's flaws in the direction due to its pacing, drawn-out ending, and his unconventional approach to telling the story. Kaufman overall creates a film that is truly original and mesmerizing.

Cinematographer Frederick Elmes does an amazing with the film's stylish photography with some moody interior shots of the smoky-fire house with soft lens in those scenes. In some of the hospital and hallway scenes, it's in a blue-green style that's effective with the mood of its protagonist. Elmes' work in the exterior is great as he keeps the camera on the protagonist as it moves constantly and stopping at times to see where everything is taking place. Elmes work is truly magnificent in its photography and camera work as he reveals a wide scope into the world of theater and its ambitions. Editor Robert Frazen does fine work with the film's rhythmic cutting and transitional cuts that work in keeping the story moving despite its slow, turgid pacing.

Production designer Mark Friedberg, along with set decorator Lydia Marks and art director Adam Stockhausen, does spectacular work with the film's set designs. Notably in the big play scene where they create numerous replicas of the warehouse inside of the warehouse and another inside. With the look of the town and everything else, it's truly amazing as Friedberg's design is definitely brilliant in its staging and look. Other scenes shot in the homes are done wonderfully to reveal the contrasting world between Adele's posh lifestyle and the drab world that Caden lives in. Costume designer Melissa Toth does fantastic work with the evolving style of the female characters as the film goes on where the character of Hazel had this look, frizzy look to something more sophisticated as it progresses. The clothes that the women wear are superb while the look of Caden in all of its blandness is excellent for the way his character is.

Visual effects supervisor Mark Russell does excellent work with the recreation of the buildings as well as the zeppelin that flies around in the city. Makeup designer head Judy Chin does brilliant work with the aging look of the characters with the use of wigs and such along with the tattoo designs by Tim Kern for the adult Olive character. Sound designer Eugene Gearty and editor Philip Stockton do terrific work in the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the theater as well as other sounds to convey the troubled mind of Caden. Music composer Jon Brion creates a melancholic, heavy score filled with somber notes and jazz touches to help create the mood of Caden's mind along with original songs co-written with Kaufman done in a jazz style. With vocals by Sadie Goldstein on one track and Deanna Storey on three other songs. It's definitely a noteworthy yet haunting soundtrack from Jon Brion.

The casting by Jeanne McCarthy is phenomenal for its array of actors that she assembled. Small performances from Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen as Caden's parents, Peter Friedman as a doctor, Josh Pais as an opthamologist, Amy Wright as the burning house realtor, Rosemary Murphy as the woman at the hallway Caden meets, Christopher Evan Welch as a pastor, Robin Weigert as the adult Olive, Deidre O'Connell as Ellen's mother, Kat Peters as the young Ellen, Daisy Tahan as Caden and Claire's daughter Ariel, and Paul Sparks as Derek are all memorable in their individual scenes. Sadie Goldstein is wonderful as the young Olive with some funny lines and some great scenes with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Jennifer Jason Leigh is good in her small role as Maria, Adele's friend who manipulates Olive into becoming a tattoo model while later sporting a German accent to be an enemy of Caden.

Hope Davis is funny as a manipulative, sexy therapist who helps Caden with his problems but only for her own gain. Tom Noonan is great as Sammy, a doppelganger of Caden who plays the part of Caden so well that he ends up charming Hazel. Emily Watson is wonderfully funny as Hazel's doppelganger as she mimics everything Hazel does on character but as herself, she's a dreary Briton who threatens to change things for the play. Dianne Wiest is amazing as a dual role of Adele's maid Ellen with her dreary life and the actress Millicent who ends up becoming a driving force to the play late in the film as Weist's performance is phenomenal. Catherine Keener is excellent as Adele, Caden's sympathetic first wife who couldn't deal with the fact that her marriage to Caden is going to work as she leaves to become the person that shadows Caden for the rest of his life.

Michelle Williams is brilliant as Claire, Caden's second wife and then-leading actress who becomes supportive only to later be frustrated by the prolonging of the play as she seeks other ventures. Samantha Morton is great as Hazel, the woman who longed to be with Caden only to be rejected at first and move on, then become his creative partner and later, equal. Morton's performance is just wonderful as she and Hoffman have amazing chemistry that is touching and funny. Finally, there's Philip Seymour Hoffman in a tour-de-force performance as Caden Cotard. Hoffman's performance is just great in revealing the anguished and tortured soul of a man who loses himself into his own creation while his own life falls apart. Yet, Hoffman carries the film with such pain and humor that it's definitely his best performance to date as an actor.

Synecdoche, New York is a brilliant, provocative, and highly-original film from Charlie Kaufman. Fans of Kaufman's view of surrealism, the artistic process, and the tortured soul will enjoy the film for its high-concept and intense exploration into the world of theater and art. Mainstream audiences though, might be baffled by the film's concept and story along with its slow pacing and unconventional humor. It's definitely a film for an art-house film-going audience as they often wanted to be challenged by something like this. The average movie-goer might not understand the film in its concept though the performances by the ensemble cast led by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton do bring something accessible. It might not be for the average movie-goer but this isn't something they shouldn't entirely dismiss. In the end, Synecdoche, New York is a wild, imaginative, and innovative film from Charlie Kaufman.

Related: Anomalisa

© thevoid99 2012

4 comments:

Sati. said...

Fantastic review for what must be one of the most difficult and complex movies I've seen, I can't believe how underrated it is. It shows so many of human anxieties and worries accuretly and the cast is just stellar.

thevoid99 said...

I agree, it's a very underrated film that I think should be re-watched a few times to really understand how powerful it is.

It's not an easy film to watch but I thought it was really good.

Alex Withrow said...

You know, I've only seen this once, and I felt that was enough. I didn't fully "get it" (but, really, does anyone fully "get it"?), but I did find it wildly original.

With all that said, I think your review has encouraged me to go back and have another look. Nice work.

thevoid99 said...

It's a film that needs re-watches. It's a very complex and highly original film. I still have issues with its pacing but I still think it's an incredible film.