To describe Synecdoche, New York is to describe life itself. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has explored the miseries and woes of people looking for warmth and shelter in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Synecdoche, New York is bigger and even more ambitious than those three pictures, an enormous portrait of an artist lost in his work and romance. Kaufman’s directorial debut has been criticized for its excessiveness and length for muddling the subject matter and emotional drift, but for me the material felt compelling and completely original to the extent that this may just be Kaufman’s finest work.
Synecdoche’s protagonist Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a lonely playwright who craves acceptance and love. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has distanced herself from Caden and eventually departs him with his four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) to go to Berlin, leaving him almost helpless. Due to a numerous amount of psychological and physical ailments he suffers, Caden begins to believe he is dying and when he is granted the MacArthur Fellowship, Caden embarks on creating a play about him, replicating all of New York on a stage. Caden’s life further thickens as he struggles in his romantic life, juggling between Adele, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who runs the box office at his theater, and Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in Caden’s previous plays.
Kaufman’s intention for Synecdoche is to encompass everything he has done before all into a single picture. Like every Kaufman protagonist, Caden is a sad-sack loner who lives in a cold, bitter, and spiteful world. Synecdoche, New York also features many Kaufmanesque comic bits and elements such as Hazel’s eternal burning home and Adele’s miniscule paintings (so small they require viewers to wear magnifying glasses fitted on their heads to observe them) that seem distinct as the 7 ½ floor in Being John Malkovich or Lacuna Inc. from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In a way, this is Charlie Kaufman’s interpretation of Federico Fellini’s 8½, as both acutely examine artist who search themselves for moral guidance and reasoning.
Midway through, however, Synecdoche, New York takes a turn in the plot as Kaufman forces the audience to question the limits between reality and fiction. Caden hires Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), a man who has obsessively followed him for the past twenty years, to play himself and Tammy (Emily Watson) to acts as Hazel while having Claire is herself. Kaufman goes through the endless possibilities of Caden’s production, from translating the playwright’s troubles from life to on stage to the troubling fact that Sammy falls in love with the real Hazel. Through all of its twists, Synecdoche, New York becomes almost maddening and lost.
Yet the picture works beautifully. The material is not suitable for a directorial debut and under the guidance of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, Synecdoche, New York would be clearer, but without Kaufman’s direction, Synecdoche, New York would not be as personal and emotional and thus is arguably the writer’s magnum opus. Attempting to replicate life itself is a might ambition that could make Synecdoche, New York come off as overly pretentious (a common complaint among many of the film’s detractors), but Kaufman balances the ups and downs of Caden’s existence. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the protagonist is a difficult role to play, but Hoffman is successful in revealing the grief of Caden. In the late actor’s distinguished career, this may as well be his best performance.
Synecdoche, New York may be overly cryptic but it’s also extraordinarily revealing on the process of making artwork, a masterpiece about making a masterpiece. It further proves Kaufman’s status as the best screenwriter working today.