Posted by: ckckred | March 19, 2014

Synecdoche, New York


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 , 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 as 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.



  1. Top work mate. Been meaning to check this out for a while. Looks a tricky one but worth it.

    • Thanks! It is a decisive picture but I thought it was amazing.

  2. Love your insightful review. There were plot points in the film I really loved, (PSH great acting) but as a whole, the film was a mess for me. It could have been great if he tried this after a few films under his belt. You are so right!

    • Thanks! I thought the film was great, but I can definitely understand your thoughts. It’d probably look much different under Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry.

  3. It isn’t always an easy watch, but Synedoche, New York is a fascinating film. There are so many layers to uncover, and it’s also surprisingly funny for a movie that’s often considered pretentious like you mention. It doesn’t totally work, but I think that’s part of the charm. Anything this off the rails is going to have some issues here and there. I love the ambition of the whole project.

    • The ambition of Synecdoche is what I loved most about the movie as well. I didn’t quite grasp everything but I enjoyed every part of the movie.

  4. Hoffman’s finest performance I feel in a film that rewards repeated viewings. Excellent stuff.

    • Thanks! This is certainly among Hoffman’s best performances, probably his most devoted.

  5. I’ve yet to catch this Kaufman effort but as a fan and your review, I am suitably intrigued. Top critique buddy.

    • Thanks! It’s Kaufman’s most Kaufman-esque movie. It has its share of detractors but I thought it was pretty stunning.

  6. A nice, balanced review for sure. I found this a heavy slog when I saw it, and think you’re right when you say that in another director’s hands it would have been clearer; I just remember feeling lost for much of the second half of it. Great performance by Hoffman though in the midst of it all – one of his best, and that’s saying something!

    • Thanks! I can definitely understand that feeling as it was difficult for me to follow all the movie but I enjoyed every second of it. Hoffman was really great, wasn’t he? He perfectly fits the role as Caden.

  7. Great review man! I was admittedly left a little distant from this when I first seen it but I don’t think I was fully prepared. Now I am, though. I’m going to give this another go soon.

    • Thanks! Definitely watch Synecdoche again. I was blown away but it took me some time to fully digest the material.

  8. I’m very curious about this one, I’m hoping to catch more of Philip Seymour Hoffman works in the coming months. I didn’t know he worked w/ Catherine Keener here, they played husband and wife in A Late Quartet.

    • I’ve been meaning to see Synecdoche for a while and bought the blu-ray about a week after Hoffman’s death. This is perhaps his finest role and I’d be interested in reading your take of this picture.

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