It’s rare that I’m totally at a loss for words when the time comes to discuss a film. But after only one viewing of Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York I feel like I’m still outside of it. I know what I feel about the movie, that it is an incredibly rare, if slightly flawed gem, but there’s so much about it that I can’t fix in my mind.
I know: not the best way to open what amounts to a sales pitch. I should have used this instead: “Synecdoche, New York is a vividly, obsessively realized film with the most dedicated ensemble cast in recent memory.” Which is true. And yet there’s no way that I feel like I could write any review now that would do the movie justice.
Part of what is so daunting about the film is that it is just as detailed and obsessive as the fictional reality it creates. Merely stating the plot — a middle-aged writer spends decades attempting to stage the play which becomes his life — barely paints the surface of the movie. Not even that, in fact. Furthermore, poring over the narrative intricacies might only bring you to the threshold of what Kaufman has built.
Charlie Kaufman achieves things in this film I’ve never seen more seasoned directors attempt at all. As Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) creates a theatrical version of his own life, he hires actors to play the people in his life, and even himself. Soon, he’s got actors playing those actors within the play. Yet Kaufman never loses sight of who his primary personalities are, and he only slightly lets slip his grip on what they mean to us. The multiple instances of Caden and other characters both shows us more of who those people are, and how little Caden understands them.
As Caden tries and fails to represent his own life, the world around him is crumbling in violent, bizarre ways. Something terrible is happening on the ‘real’ streets outside. While the theatre troupe enables their leader’s navel-gazing, real life seems to be under siege. I think that’s how it works, at least. The distinctions between life on and off Caden’s stage begin to blur very early on, and an objective level of reality is often difficult to discern.
Synecdoche also plays with time in stunning, occasionally subtle ways. Days slipstream into weeks and Caden’s perception doesn’t seem to keep up. We see an extended timeline compressed into his shuttered perspective. As the story is about loss — of self, of love — and the limits of perception, the technique proves perfect and even sublime. We share Caden’s confusion, and his floundering sense of loss is heightened because we know how far off the track he really is.
That I was always aware of what Kaufman was achieving scene to scene never detracted from what he was making me feel. Quite the opposite, actually; I was feeling wonder and despair at the same time. The mix is potent and exotic.
This season is about to burst open with some incredibly powerful films: The Wrestler, Che, Slumdog Millionaire, Dear Zachary. And yet I feel like I’ve seen one of the strongest offerings this year. The fact that I know Kaufman makes missteps almost heightens what I love about this movie. If he didn’t flub a couple of scenes, this might be my ideal film, where a director transmits a vision of the world that you cannot find anywhere else, and does so with real humor and passion. The flubs just make it human; they prove that Kaufman and Caden are not quite the same.
The film opens tomorrow in New York and LA, and will platform out to other markets over the next few weeks. Even though there’s scant competition this week from chum like Saw V, High School Musical 3 and Pride and Glory — three movies I would have gnawed off limbs to avoid — I’m afraid that this opening will slip away unnoticed. Don’t let that happen, please. I’ll be seeing this movie again next week, at which point I hope I’ll be ready to sit down and attempt objectivity. Until then this not-review will have to do.
One last note: if you do see the film this weekend and live in LA, a gallery in the city is displaying the tiny, beautiful art created by Catherine Keener’s character in the film. The Circuit (via Spout) has a piece on the show; I’d be there in a second if I could.
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