Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Kevin Tran. Viewed at the Riviera Theater, Santa Barbara, CA.

In plain, ordinary conversation, death is a subject that is difficult to discuss, and I think it’s even tougher to talk about in films. Sure, death and people dying happens all the time in movies, but it is treated more like an event or turning point in the plot, rather than an experience that characters and protagonist have to accept.  While it is hard to express the various thoughts and feelings that come into our heads when we think about our own death, it is the primary focus that famed-screenwriter, now director, Charlie Kaufman explores in his new film Synecdoche, New York (pronounced sin-eck-doe-key).

Caden Cotard, played brilliantly by Oscar hopeful Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater director who struggles through his successful work, his failing marriage, and his paranoia of dying. After the success of his latest play and receiving a MacArthur grant, Caden embarks on an ambitious journey to create a play that says everything, celebrates life and death, and focuses on the relationship people have with one another. In order to do this, he recreates a life size replica of his own life and city inside a large warehouse. As Caden continues his masterpiece, many bizarre events begin to spiral out of control in his life. He shuffles through different lovers (an amazing supporting cast of great actresses such as Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, and Michelle Williams), his body begins to deteriorate, and his never-ending play becomes larger, more complicated, and daunting, especially as he hires someone else to play himself.

Synechoche’s storyline is outrageous and confusing, but its themes are deep and moving. The film begins as realistic and mundane as one can imagine, but then beautifully progresses to becomes more and more eccentric and bizarre. It uses art direction masterfully to illustrate the story like great fiction. And like all truly great fiction, the film covers an impressive scope of different human emotions. I believe it would require multiple viewings to absorb its enormous depth and impact, and yet the hefty 124-minute run time, confusing plot, with a rather dissatisfying ending may dissuade you to even see it at all. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone– it’s a challenging film.

As a writer, Kaufman always has an amazing presence behind his own films, and after he is finally able to visualize his own screenplay and have final cut in his directorial debut, we really feel as if we are inside the mind of one of Hollywood’s most original thinkers. He has made a film about human nature, struggling to make a mark on the world, growing old, love, death, and consequently, it’s also about life. Even though I don’t believe Kaufman has created his greatest achievement as an artist, I commend him for his creative effort towards originality, yet expected nothing less. It’s one of the best films of the year.

If you see it, and fall in love with it, you’re going to want to see it again. Therefore, I’m seeing it again.

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