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Movie Review - 'Synecdoche, New York'

Synecdoche, New York

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Michelle Williams
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Rated R

synecdochenewyork_galleryposter.jpg The problem with Synecdoche, New York is that it has very little direct about it or direction within it. The irony is that it's a film about a director.

Many of us have long admired Charlie Kaufman's writing; his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are among the best and most original in the past quarter century or more. All three have been given Academy Award nominations, and Eternal Sunshine won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar a few years ago.

But now he's directing, and as far as that goes, he probably should have chosen a project with a little more to grab onto.

Synecdoche is a play on words of the New York town of Schenectady, referenced at the beginning of the film. It's a real word, though, and it means using part of a thing to describe the whole of that thing. In recent political parlance, think Joe the Plumber. He's a synecdoche of disaffected working class voters. It could also be the opposite, where something larger than what is being described is used to describe it. Or it could be substituting the general for the specific or substituting the specific for the general. For example, I call soft drinks "Coke" because it conveys the same thing.

It's an even more confounding title than Quantum of Solace, isn't it? It actually does make sense within the framework of the story, but that's sure a long way to go to get there.

And anyway, confusing people doesn't make for a great movie, even if you're David Lynch. That's really what undoes this film, because there's so little connective tissue between what Kaufman wants to tell us and what I think we see. He's concerned with a theatrical director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to do something glorious with the MacArthur Grant he's just received. He wants to write a play that is brutal and honest, although the production he eventually mounts is more the mirrored reflection of honesty than it is the real thing.

The director's life comes undone when his wife (Catherine Keener) takes their daughter to Berlin for a vacation. The vacation lasts 20 years. He invests himself so fully in the play, which has no script and seemingly no end; the cast and crew of this slice of life production grows and grows and grows until he has literally created a city on stage that is his own life looking back at him.

There are some good performances, I think, though Kaufman gives us very little time or context in which we can admire Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, or Samantha Morton. Hoffman sells the weariness and anger and frustration of his character throughout, but I wish he didn't have to work so hard to do it. That blame also falls on Kaufman's script; characters and changes flit in and out of scenes without making their own impact, forcing Hoffman to react to them all the more.

Synecdoche, New York is far from being Kaufman's best or most inventive work. It's also the least accessible. There are multiple ways into most movies, a byproduct of having different character types we can relate to or stories that remind us of our own journeys or struggles. None of those things can be found here, and the film, like Hoffman's character, is pretty isolated, walled off from reality. That might be Kaufman's point, I'm not sure, but regardless of what that point is, I can't rationalize why he thought it was important enough to build this movie around it.


Reader Comments (4)

Terrible review. Some films are here for us to watch time and time again, and to see new things. You can make your story look pretentious from the get-go, ala "The Fountain", or you can create it with depth and a backbone and not spell it out over and over again like this film. Of course, he kind of explains it in the last fifteen minutes to make the film more accessible, and it is his least accessible work. But why should that be a bad thing? To some people, film can be about the art of it all and not the box office results or the reviews which are frustratingly wrote by those with skewed views of film after being forced every weekend to go and watch garbage film after garbage film. Pieces of art can be watched time and time again, and you can be perplexed such as I was when you view them. Some people want to take that feeling and breakdown every little piece of "why" an artist put this or that in there and what it truly did mean. As far as I am concerned, you can go and ask Kaufman directly, but he is not that kind of artist. His work is open for interpretation, and whatever you may feel; frustration counts as well, is your interpretation of his work based on your personality. His work is not here to change that, or to change the viewer. It can speak to a certain audience, which is very small, the neurotic types, but for the most part not many people are going to fall in love with this film the first time they watch it. That's okay. Perhaps your review applies to a certain type of people who will see this film and no doubt dislike it, but I don't even think you should be reviewing it. People are fans of Kaufman's other screen writing because those directors made it MORE accessible than it actually was. Adaptation was a strange film, but it was very accessible. Eternal Sunshine had accessible written all over it, you can look at that cast for two hours and all those visuals are very interesting. But Kaufman does NOT sugarcoat his own work in this. It is JET-BLACK, and SADIST, and HILARIOUS at times. Also, to comment on that the film has no direction, I think it is set from the start where it is going and Kaufman gets fantastic performances out of all involved. I am very impressed with his work on this film.

Saturday, November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Jones

This movie is for those that question the fabric of life.

Sunday, November 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpercy feils

I agree completely with the reviewer of the review. This is a very complex multi-dimensional movie open to all kinds of interpretations as any good piece of art should be. I thought this movie was extremely well done and the performances were incredible.

Saturday, November 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterchristopher

Saw the movie last night and my immediate reaction was: a jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces don't fit.

Monday, November 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterK Wisman

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