SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play at the local theater in Schenectady, New York, but finding things difficult. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him to pursue her painting in Berlin, taking their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). A new relationship with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) grinds to a halt. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions. On winning a major prize and its attendant cash, he gathers an ensemble cast into a city warehouse, hoping to create a work of brutal honesty, driven by his sense of loneliness and fear of death. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their lives in a growing mockup of the city outside. However, as the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden's life veers wildly off the tracks. The textured tangle of real and theatrical relationships blurs the line between the world of the play and that of Caden's deteriorating reality.
Review by Louise Keller:
When it comes to risk taking, Charlie Kaufman is a master. In his latest film which explores the downhill journey that leads to death somewhat comically, Kaufman throws together a pot pouri of the obscure, the bizarre with occasional flashes of brilliance. It is as meaningful as you would like it to be, or it could be dismissed as pretentious nonsense. Some of it works; much of it does not. In any event, Kaufman fans can be assured there is plenty to talk about as fantasy and reality twirl together in dizzying fashion.
The film begins well as we meet Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard, a complex theatre director who is trying to salvage and make sense of his chaotic life. Trouble is, much of it is outside his control. His highly strung artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) wants to escape reality ('Everyone's disappointing; the more you know someone, the more disappointing they are'), his shrink (Hope Davis) is a nut case and Caden finds himself constantly stuck in the past instead of being able to deal with the now. A small accident while shaving sets Caden on a hypochondriacally charged journey punctuated by health problems.
Hoffman is always brilliant and we feel as though we are able to watch the inner workings of Caden's troubled mind. He struggles artistically (with his ultimate theatre project) and personally with his failed relationships (Michelle Williams is terrific as his actress second wife). The greatest emotional journey is the one he shares with Samantha Morton's outspoken redhead, which crash lands into unimaginable places. Morton is wonderful; Kaufman has handpicked all his cast and everyone delivers.
Timeframes change and great leaps are made as actors play actors playing out the lives of the film's real characters. It becomes quite spooky when it is the substitute who knows more about the person, their motives and responses than the person themselves. Love, forgiveness, loneliness and trying to self understanding are some of the themes and much of it is so confusing, your brain will go into spasm. Despite some wry humour, the mood is intense throughout as death continues to cast its sombre shadow. As for the title, let me simply say that working out its relevance is less of a challenge than understanding the entirety of Kaufman's vision, in this his directing debut.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Ravaged by life, both emotionally and physically, theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a figure of confused loneliness, whose bitter life lessons nevertheless encourage him to try and create something of lasting value in theatre. A living replica of the lives of all his cast - it's as if he was hearing Shakespeare's observation that all the world's a stage, and he was going to direct the production. This is folly, of course, grandiose folly from which there is no escape. The ultimate director turns out to be a female voice in his head (or earpiece if you wish to be pedantic).
But I'm getting ahead of myself: synecdoche (sih-neck-doh-kee) is a figure of speech, as if by New York we can mean the whole world, the whole human race, the fullness of the human condition even. Well, that's Charlie Kaufman's ambition, we may well think, as he delves into the deep recesses of personality, conscience, fear, loneliness, sex and art, all tied up with the ribbon of relationships. It's not gift wrapped, though, and we see the frailty of this thing called humanity in all its evident nakedness.
Philip Seymour Hoffman deconstructs Caden Cotard in a virtuoso characterisation, and is at his intense best. The entire cast is mesmerising, even though many have mere cameos - notably Dianne Wiest. But Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Hope Davis and Jennifer Jason Leigh make a formidable female talent pool, through which Hoffman has to swim, not to mention Catherine Keener in a dazzling, dark performance as his wife, Adele.
Kaufman's directing debut is as intricate and thought provoking as all his writings, an often surreal, sometimes obtuse and occasionally funny work of great complexity. It's a challenge for audiences, who will no doubt divide into heated camps. If you enjoy the cinematic tricks of David Lynch, this is likely to be your cup of (virulent) tea.