Synecdoche, NY (2008)

Possibly the most pretentious title in the history of independent film (except The Colour Of Pomegranates) particularly as it purports to be a pun (puns don’t have to be funny) or play on words. Synecdoche, NY marks the directorial debut of one Mr. Charlie Kaufman, you know the guy who put the word “kaufmanesque” in front of every slightly left field picture made after 1998. Bored of having his oddball creations ruined by jobbing hacks like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry he’s taken matters into his own hands to get his unique vision across intact.

Synecdoche puts Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation firmly into the shade when it comes to insane, spiralling downwards, naval gazing, hysterical plotlines. Presented with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a successful theatre diector who’s private life and health are falling apart, Kaufman proceeds to send him as far down the rabbit hole as possible. His relationships with four women are dysfunctional and embarrassing, he cries before, during and after sex and his body is sprouting unsightly illnesses that no doubt reflect the torrid workings of his scrambled mind. He does, however, have a vision. Given a seemingly infinate Macarthur grant Caden begins an audacious theatre installation, a determination to search for the truth grows into an all encompassing replica of a borough of New York inside a vast warehouse. Populated by a cast of thousands that eventually encompasses Caden, the actor playing Caden and the women in his life and their doubles it runs for over twenty years and is never opened to the public. This is a long way from Speed.

It’s tempting to see this as a unique opportunity to see into Kaufman’s head, unfiltered by anyone else’s techniques or ideas Synerdoche, NY is a shaggier beast than his previously adapted scripts. Looser and less structured it almost feels as though a little self control was lost. If Synerdoche does present us with the inner workings of a typical writer it’s a stereotypical one. Everyone assumes writers are untidy, paranoid, convinced they are worthless, bookish, delusional, deranged madmen one step away from suicide. In truth it’s probably just what Kaufman wants us to think, he did, after all, write himself into Adaptation and allowed us to see him masturbating over Meryl Streep. He’s a writer unafraid of introspection, less angry than Mamet certainly but mining the same seam of dramatism just from completely the other end.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fearless and trusting actor, allowing himself to be portrayed unflateringly without a moments hesitation. Here he’s no different, broken and brilliant, portraying a failing mind better than all his make up can portray his failing and ageing body. The four women in his life are excellent, getting Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Samantha Morton to perform in this unknowable, unexplainable picture is a coup Kaufman should be proud of.

There’s a dystopian feel to the New York(s) on display, a certain Brazilness in the architecture and particularly in the hospitals and the doctors. Caden’s worsening health seems to mirror Sam’s mother’s cosmetic surgery onsession in Gilliam’s movie. Other than that the influences are more vague, a nod to Altman here, a feel of Godard there. It’s a mish mash of a classical look mixed with the structural freedom allowed by Independant film.

A primal scream of paranoia and psychosis then, the terrors of modern life and art’s place within it spread bare across two hours of muddled, messy, uncomfortable viewing. The whole process of artistic creation presented in all of it’s pain. Daring, deranged and only lacking the thing it’s central character has most of, albeit in a horrifically broken state, heart.

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