Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)

This demands to be seen two or three times in order to piece together all the meanings and layers and characters. Unfortunately, with Milk and Ashes of Time in theaters, I don’t really feel like watching this again…

Charlie Kaufman directs his own script, presumably to have total control over his most complex scenario yet. Anyone would have to say he does a fine job with it, using effects and sets and makeup very well, and getting super performances out of his actors – anyone who hadn’t seen the Jonze and Gondry adaptations of Kaufman’s previous scripts, that is. Adaptation, Malkovich, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine all had their share of the sad, dark grunginess that pervades this movie, but they also had amazing visual stylists as directors, who could add delirious highs to all those Kaufman-depressive lows through their staging and casting (note that the more successful films, Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine, put comedy actors in the dramatic roles). Synecdoche ends up being a movie I enjoy discussing with Katy, an admirable film, but not something I feel I can love.

Phil Hoffman is Caden, a Schenectady theater director – yes, Kaufman is doing it again. After screenwriting a movie about a screenwriter, he’s directing a movie about a director. Anyhow, Hoffman is married to Catherine Keener, a more ambitious artist than himself. Friend/nanny(?) Jennifer Jason Leigh is Maria, who watches over their young daughter Olive. Keener leaves Caden, takes the kid and moves to Berlin, which prompts a psychic break in Caden, so when he wins a grant to produce a play in NYC, he makes it a SYNECDOCHE (noun, the part which stands in for the whole) for his life. Eventually, as the play-Caden starts to produce his own play with its own play-Caden, Caden’s life may be becoming a synecdoche for the play! I think!

Anyhow, play-Caden is an interesting guy named Sammy (Tom Noonan). Emily Watson and Samantha Morton, two actresses I’ve admired who I always thought looked similar, finally appear in a movie together playing the same-ish role… bravo for that. Morton is Hazel, a girl who has long had a crush on Hoffman, and Watson is the girl hired to play Hazel. Hazel does get to be with Caden for one day before dying of smoke inhalation in her long-burning house. Hope Davis plays an unhelpful family therapist. And Dianne Wiest (do I only know her from Edward Scissorhands?) is hired as Caden at the end, and told to “direct” the real Caden, which she does, to his death.

Meanwhile there’s stuff about Caden’s daughter growing up in Berlin, falling in love with Maria and dying of a skin disease, never forgiving Caden for ruining his marriage with his secret gay life (not otherwise referenced, as far as I know – unless Caden “being” Dianne Wiest is a reference). Sammy commits suicide (referencing an attempted-suicide of Caden). There’s lots, lots more that I’m sure I have forgotten.

Kaufman’s real strength here are his collapsing of time, and strangely simultaneous expanding of time (see the burning house) – more haunting than his collapsing/expanding of reality – and all the philosophy on human existence he crams into such a short movie. I’m sure he’s aware that there’s no warmth in his movie, but is he aware that we would’ve liked some?