Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York
The Charlotte Observer
The word “synecdoche” is pronounced “sin-EK-duh-key.” It’s a literary device with multiple meanings, but the main one is the use of a part to represent a whole: Someone seeing a ship sail into a harbor might say, “The fleet has returned!”
That’s the only clue I can give to help you interpret “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman’s most abstruse movie. Oh, and the word sounds like “Schenectady,” the city where the early part of the film is set. That’s a joke, I guess.
Kaufman has written knotty, even impenetrable scripts for a decade. He started with his wittiest screenplay, “Being John Malkovich,” followed it with his least accessible noodlings (“Human Nature”) and won an Academy Award for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But “Synecdoche,” his most rambling (and probably most self-referential) navel-gazing to date, may confound even some devoted fans.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a community theater director inexplicably awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. He uses it to rent a vast warehouse for more than two decades, infinitely rehearsing and planning a play about himself and people in his life.
The movie takes place simultaneously in the real world, which almost invariably disappoints him, and the imaginary world of his play, where artistic paralysis prevents him from a breakthrough until he’s too old to make dramatic use of it.
This is Kaufman’s directing debut, and a firmer hand might have imposed more order. For instance, Cotard is obsessed with bodily functions at the beginning of the film; he’s frequently covered with pustules or discussing a bowel movement. But Kaufman drops this device midway through, and the hypochondria and physical decay cease to matter.
Characters such as Cotard’s cruel wife (Catherine Keener) and her bizarre artist companion (Jennifer Jason Leigh) drift in and out of the plot, but their motivations aren’t clear: Why would the wife ever align herself with such a whiny, insensitive loser as Cotard is at first?
Kaufman’s movies are often about the pains of the creative process, though rarely its pleasures.
“Synecdoche” seems to be devoted to da Vinci’s dictum that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” As Cotard slogs eternally through the process of transforming his life into a play, he keeps discovering byways he wants to explore but never manages to see a larger view or whip the piece into a manageable form.
Kaufman’s screenplays also play head games with audiences or follow people who play head games with each other, and “Synecdoche” does both. Kaufman has a good time creating layers: The real people in Cotard’s world exist, actors play them, then more actors are hired to play those actors.
Cotard’s very name could be an in-joke; it might come from the French word for “coward” (“couard”) or an English word for a dunce (“dotard”).
Unraveling this material is sometimes a pleasure, especially when sad-eyed Tom Noonan comes along to be Cotard in the play or members of the fine female cast are around. (They include Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest and Samantha Morton as an aide with an inexplicable lifelong crush on Cotard.)
But watching the film is also wearying, like assembling a puzzle from a box into which a sadist continually pours new pieces. I was still processing details when the abrupt ending snatched the puzzle away.