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
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
The article that Caden reads while in the doctor's waiting room, about his wife, is titled: "It's Good To Be Adele". The intro paragraph reads: "Six months ago, Adele was an under-appreciated housewife in Eastern New York. Stuck in a dead-end marriage to a slovenly ugly-face loser, Adele Lack had big dreams for her and her then four-year-old daughter, Olivia. That's when her paintings got small." See more »
In the scene where Caden is talking to Hazel directly after having talked to the doctor after his seizure, there is a dog in a box behind Hazel in her box office. Upon cutting to Caden, and then cutting back, the dog is gone. This is the remnants of the character "Squishy", from the original draft of the script. The almost-dead dog was found by Hazel after driving home from the premiere. She was saddened by Caden denying her, and she finds the dog, run over and bloody on the side of the road. She decides to keep it. This is the only scene where he is present, and his presence is not explained. See more »
The New Charlie Kaufman: More Ambition and Less Joy
"Synecdoche, New York" feels like the work of a man gripped by fear, grief, and a sense that time is running out. The most ambitious of Charlie Kaufman's movies by a long shot, it is also the bleakest. Though Kaufman's work has always had a streak of comic miserablism running through it, his earlier movies are so creative and original that you feel invigorated by watching them. They're consistently delightful, and in the case of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," even profound.
"Synecdoche, New York" certainly aspires to profundity, but it's lost the sense of delight. It follows its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard, for about forty years of "one bad thing after another." The only good thing that happens to him--he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant--turns out to be a curse in disguise, as he feels he must prove himself worthy of the grant, and spends the rest of his life conceiving and rehearsing a massive theater piece that never opens. Rather than engaging with life, he becomes lost in the world that he has created, building an exact replica of New York City inside a New York warehouse. The last part of the movie is a blur of deaths and funerals both real and re-enacted.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the best sad-sack actor working today, plays Caden. He gives a fearless performance, but he's maybe too passive in the role--not displaying enough of the mad-genius ambition that propels Caden to create such a huge work of art. Catherine Keener, who was so sparky and vibrant in "Being John Malkovich", plays Caden's first wife as a glum-faced shrew with awful hair.
Brightening things up a bit is Samantha Morton, giving a very charming performance as the guileless box-office girl Hazel. And in a brilliant bit of doubling, Emily Watson plays the actress who plays Hazel in the play-within-the-movie. Hope Davis, in a small role as Caden's therapist, seems to have wandered in from another, less dour Kaufman movie--she'd fit in with the mad scientists of "Eternal Sunshine."
For me, the scene that encapsulates "Synecdoche, New York" shows Caden working on his magnum opus late at night. He has hired thousands of actors and now needs to tell them what their roles are, so he writes short scenarios on pieces of paper and distributes them to his cast the next morning. As the camera pans over the slips of paper, which cover the floor of the warehouse as far as the eye can see, we note that every scenario is sad and depressing: "You were raped last night." "You just lost your job." Thousands of papers, and not a happy one in the bunch.
If the movie took a skeptical attitude toward Caden's belief that only unhappy situations can make for great art, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But because the movie, instead, reinforces the idea that depression = genius and genius = depression, my entire belief system rebels against it. People have called "Synecdoche, New York" a profound commentary on the life of artists--but if being an artist was always like that, who would ever choose to become one?
One could see parallels between Kaufman's life and his protagonist's: like Caden, Kaufman has won a coveted honor, and his first project after winning is deliberately big and ambitious. In my opinion, Kaufman richly deserved his Oscar for the "Eternal Sunshine" screenplay. But he won't deserve any more Oscars if he spends the rest of his life self-consciously trying to make Great Art, at the expense of the light and witty touch that is the reason we came to love him in the first place.
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