Movie thoughts: Synecdoche, New York

“Synecdoche, New York,” the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman (previously known for writing whacked-out screenplays like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation,” and “Being John Malkovich”) is an expansively claustrophobic experience. It seeks to tell the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, under increasing layers of makeup), a playwright who is awarded, or perhaps cursed, with a MacArthur genius grant. 

Dissatisfied with his previous theatrical efforts, Cotard uses his grant money to purchase an abandoned warehouse that he envisions as the setting for his upcoming effort, a sprawling play about truth and death, with Cotard himself and his friends and family among the cast of characters. Included among these characters are Cotard’s wife Adele, a painter who uses miniscule canvases, Claire, an actress who starred in Cotard’s adaptation of “Death of A Salesman,” (a play that takes place in its protagonist’s mind; can you say, “Foreshadowing?”) Hazel, the box-office girl at the “Salesman” theater, Sammy Barnathan, a mysterious character with a bit of a Caden obsession, Caden’s daughters Olive and Ariel, and Ellen, a cleaning woman.

“Synecdoche” boasts an impressive cast, including Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, and Emily Watson. Trying to explain which actress plays which role is an Ouroborean task, however; they all play at least two characters (or characters playing characters) in the course of the movie, as Caden continually recasts his love interests in the play. Toward the end of the movie, Cotard even joins in on the identity-switching himself. 

I know all of that sounds deliberately confusing, and to some extent, that’s the point. At its core, “Synecdoche, New York” is a horror movie, and the identity confusion is a large component of the movie’s scare-factor. “We wanted to talk about things that were scary-scary, as opposed to horror-movie scary. So we talked about dying, aging, time passing, relationships gone bad, regret, illness, isolation, and loneliness,” Kaufman said in an interview for Image Journal. All of these every-day scary things are seen through the lens of Caden, who appears to be dying in the beginning of the movie but stays alive through the 20-some years his play is in rehearsals. He doggedly convinces himself that if he can just find the right way to stage the play and tell his story, then his whole life will fall into place and gain the meaning he needs it to have. 

As the play progresses, though, it becomes obvious that Cotard is not up to the challenge he has set himself. His play is simply too big and too complex for him to remain in control of it. The set gradually grows to encompass a recreation of Caden’s New York world, with actors struggling to act like real people and Caden traversing it endlessly, doling out notes and directions, all the while trying to figure out what his play is actually about. He is essentially trying to be a god, while all the while he is trapped in his own creation.

And here is where the real horror of “Synecdoche” shows itself. There is no God on Caden’s New York stage, so he (and later, his friends and characters) muddle through as best they can, trying to take up the mantle for themselves.

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