A psychologically troubled novelty supplier is nudged towards a romance with an English woman, all the while being extorted by a phone-sex line run by a crooked mattress salesman, and purchasing stunning amounts of pudding.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman
When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a procedure to have each other erased from their memories. But it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.
Theater director Caden Cotard is mounting a new play. Fresh off of a successful production of Death of a Salesman, he has traded in the suburban blue-hairs and regional theater of Schenectady for the cultured audiences and bright footlights of Broadway. Armed with a MacArthur grant and determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can put his whole self, he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan's theater district. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a small mock-up of the city outside. As the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden's own life veers wildly off the tracks. The shadow of his ex-wife Adele, a celebrated painter who left him years ago for Germany's art scene, sneers at him from every corner. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele's friend, Maria. He's helplessly driving his marriage to actress ... Written by
Announcer on the radio at the very beginning says it's 22 September. The newspaper is dated in October, it's Christmas when the sinks smashes his forehead, New Year's on the ride home and March in the ophthalmologist's office. Kaufman afforded his film a dreamlike quality by playing with the representation of time throughout. See more »
I've watched you forever, Caden, but you've never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there's nothing. There's no more watching. There's no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.
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to call it a disappointment might almost be a compliment, but I dare you to see it
Note: This works MUCH better on a repeat viewing, practically a masterpiece, and one of the perfectly sad comedies ever made... though the last ten minutes is a slog (perhaps intentionally, as it's near the end of the tunnel... but it's still unbearable).
Over the course of my teenage years I've seen Being John Malkovich through Eternal Sunshine (those two the M-word, masterpieces, with Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind near-great, and Human Nature a fun minor work), and he's always given something to chew on for the brain. He's an incredible wit, maybe too incredible, like something that could combust with the amount of ideas and ruminations and skill at defining what's important to us as people and what we want out of art. Synecdoche, New York could be seen as his life-summation of what concerns him as a writer. And to call it art is simple, because it is: it is, alongside the something like Inland Empire, the most challenging work to come out of American cinema. To say that either one is flawed may come as something as a given, but for Kaufman it's somewhat more troubling.
This is a big film of ideas, crucial, life-affirming (or life-damning) thoughts about love and death and loss and forgiveness and, essentially, the process of trying to recreate and recreate and recreate this. But at the same time the intellect to engage full-tilt by Kaufman the writer, the director couldn't engage me as a viewer emotionally - at least at first. This changed on a second viewing - I'm reminded of Woody Allen's assertion on multiple viewings of 2001 that Kubrick was much ahead of him on what he was doing - but on a first impression I have to wonder, with everything going for Kaufman the satirist, the original, the sad dramatist, what the movie's audience really is. Like the play that is rehearsed for decades that Cotard never brings to his audience, what can one take away from Synecdoche, New York as far as connecting with the characters, or just Cotard?
Maybe it reveals something about me just talking about this; indeed this is probably the film of the season, if not just the year (Dark Knight fanatics take note), that you will want to talk about after it ends. As far as puzzling works of art go it's great for a good argument, especially if one is familiar with how Kaufman's work has been leading up to this point. It's not exactly that the film is ever so confusing that one will want to walk out - there is a logic, in a sense, to the life imitating art imitating life imitating art etc etc aspect that makes sense.
When Kaufman, as director, makes his film this time about as hopeful as Franz Kafka rewatching the Zapruder film on a loop, even the scenes and moments that *do* feel somewhat powerful emotionally (i.e. Hoffman seeing his daughter in a nudie-booth, or the final scene on the bed with Hoffman and Morton old and in bed with the house, once again, on fire) don't hit their mark - again, at least at first. It's almost as if seeing the film again it becomes deeper, more resonant; like any work of art at another point in one's life, it could change, and if one gives it the chance it does.
Certainly the cast makes it worthwhile to watch: Hoffman is what he is, brilliant at transforming physically as age goes by as Caden Cotard, and at delivering subtle moments of humor amid his health-decay; ditto in her own right to Morton, who ranges from bubbly and lustful to anrgy and dejected (Michelle Williams, too, shows this range); even a bit part by Dianne Wiest is appreciated. They all help to give life to what is a big, somber meditation on (quoting Douglas Adams) Life, the Universe, and Everything.
And yet, expressing my (initial) disappointment over the length (at 124 minutes it feels twice as long) or the music (did Kaufman order "kill-myself-piano-tunes-you'll-love off of ebay for this?) or the personal problem of connecting emotionally with some of the characters as they (intentionally) don't really grow, shouldn't, I hope, diminish recommending Synecdoche, New York for anyone who wants something to challenge them, provoke thought and discourse, to engage and disrupt brainwave patterns. Perhaps there should be some disappointment; like life, and the art pulled out of it with pliers, it's not always a pretty sight, especially near the end. But it is a unique journey I was glad to take, and I hope every few years or so to come back to it, and see if it changes me, or if I've changed, since seeing it last.
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