Choosing to watch Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is probably the bravest decision a film-goer can make. Seeing it is succumbing to it. I can’t imagine anyone being able to resist its snaking narrative. It wraps itself around you, chokes you to submission and then leaves you withered and weak before you can even ask “why?” The film is a puzzle; one which I’m not even sure can be solved. There are layers upon layers upon layers, just as the film features plays within plays within plays.
Synecdoche (pronounced sin-eck-da-key) takes place somewhere between the mind of theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the real world. It should be noted, this is the real world through the eyes of first-time director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (the mind behind Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Needless to say, there are differences between his world and ours. Caden’s wife Adele (Catharine Keener) hates him for reasons he can’t fully understand, he’s unsatisfied by his artistic work, he’s losing track of the concept of time, and his autonomic functions seem to be shutting down one by one. It’s a hell of a mid-life crisis. With the threat of death imminent, Caden decides to do one great thing with his life: stage a scale production of his own life, and the lives of the individuals around him in an abandoned warehouse in New York.
If only it was so simple. The production spirals out of control; both in terms of size and it’s relation to reality. His marriage to his second wife Clare (Michelle Williams) falls apart; although it all happens onstage, with an actor portraying Caden, and the original Caden calling the shots from the sidelines. His one true love, Hazel (a fragile yet sexy Samantha Morton), gets her own actress to depict her, and a love quadrangle emerges between the two Hazel’s and the two Caden’s. Multiples of people playing multiples of people. As one of the characters says late in the film, “everyone’s everyone”.
The film’s closest spiritual relations are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, although neither are quite as funny, nor are either as difficult to penetrate. Mulholland Drive is similar to Synecdoche, in that both play out like fever dreams that are both deeply personal and intensely universal. However, there is a key to solving and understanding Mulholland Drive. I’m not even sure Synecdoche has a lock. If someone told me they “didn’t get” Synecdoche, I would be hard pressed to hold it against them. But if they hated it for that very same reason, I would defend the film with every bone in my body.
It’s easy to see what Kaufman is trying to say; his characters often state the film’s themes explicitly. “Death comes quicker than you realise”; “There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose”, “Everyone’s disappointing the more you know someone”. However, thanks to the tremendous performances from the cast (led by the expectedly brilliant Hoffman), the lines never sound pat or forced. In fact, the devastating and heartbreaking truths behind these quotes each come to (sometimes disturbing) fruition in Synecdoche, New York. The real awfulness exists in the fact that these truths will mostly come true for all of us as well.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of Kaufman’s haunting masterpiece. There is a house that is constantly on fire; body art that appears from nowhere and years that skip by with the regularity of a passing hour. I’ve got my own interpretations, but if I ever approached Kaufman with my theories, I’m sure he would laugh me off. “Who is this clown that’s trying to ‘get’ my ungettable film?” I doubt anyone in the world, other than Charlie Kaufman, fully understands the intricacies of Synecdoche, New York. However, the power and tragedy of the love story, or hell, the life story of Caden Cotard will become a part of you, because it is your story, and his story is yours, and back and forth and so on and on because “everyone’s everyone”. Or something like that. Only a film this overwhelmingly messy could be so profoundly perfect.