Considered – even by its many admirers – the huge splitter of opinions in Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre, his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, deranged masterpiece in which raw, naked ambition and mind-bending existentialism are the name of the game. Anchored by a towering and soul-bearing performance from the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche asks us what it means to be a human and an artist, and examines just how far Hoffman’s ailing character (Caden) is willing to go in pursuit of his ultimate artistic ambition – to portray life itself in the (relatively) limited space of a Broadway play. As his elaborate production spirals increasingly away from budgetary and timely concerns, boundaries between the real and the fictional begin to blur and he begins to question the very meaning of it all.
Synecdoche screened in competition at Cannes in 2008, and despite not winning anything it soon gained several high-profile admirers, among them Roger Ebert (who would later declare the film as the best of the decade) and Time’s Richard Corliss, who called it a “vital affirmation of the creative process”. Despite its critical success (from most quarters, at least), Synecdoche was a complete financial failure, garnering only $4.4 million at the box office against a $20 million production budget – though box office big-hitters have never been, and (with the exception of an incongruous “script consultant” role on DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 2) likely never will be, Charlie Kaufman’s forte. Instead, the film’s legacy is based on its staggering level of ambition and scope, as well as its work from an all-star indie cast at the top of its game, and its examination of death, delusion, and human relationships within the work of a creative genius.
The cleverness of Synecdoche begins before we’ve even seen a frame – its title alone hints at the madcap brilliance you’ll find within. Synecdoche (“sih-NECK-doh-kee”, as the promotional poster helpfully points out), meaning “a word or phrase in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole, or visa versa” e.g. a worker being a “pair of hands,” or complaining that “the world isn’t fair” when you only mean the part of it that you’ve encountered. The word is also a play on the N.Y. city of Schenectady, where much of the film was shot and is set.
The film opens with what is ostensibly a conventional, if rather offbeat, family morning scene – however, as is the case with virtually every scene in the film, it is awash with deeper meaning and hidden information. The scene appears to occur over the course of a few minutes – Caden’s family wake up, eat breakfast and read the papers – yet hints and references peppered throughout the dialogue, newspaper and radio reveal that several months have already elapsed, apparently unnoticed by the characters. This fuzzy and dream-like representation of the fluidity of time sets a precedent for the film’s uncertain perception of reality.
Kaufman’s obsession with death, identity and psychology (in Synecdoche, the three are entwined) comes to the fore as the film unfolds, and Caden’s mind and life become increasingly fragmented. This feeling is mirrored by the audience as we join him in struggling to discern which scenes are based in reality, and which are based on the reality of the play – and at risk of going too far down the rabbit hole – which are based on the reality within the reality within the play. Caden’s realisation that he’ll have to cast actors to play the actors who are playing the people from his own life in the play is a grimly comic one, as we wonder where his obsession with performing “the truth” will end. A stirring monologue read by a priest at a sham funeral hammers the film’s existential message home: what’s the point in it all?
Despite these detached and often despairing philosophical musings, Synecdoche never loses its soul. A heart-breaking scene in which he sees his estranged and now grown-up daughter dying before her time brings out some incredible work from Hoffman, and his manifold relationships with the other women in his life form the strong, emotional core of the film. We see everyone’s vulnerabilities and insecurities laid out bare, as these are just flawed people trying to make sense of the very confusing worlds (both the real one and the one created by Caden) they find themselves in.
Pretentious? Cold? Maddeningly obtuse? These are all sentiments expressed by Synecdoche’s detractors – of which there are a few – and I can completely see why a casual filmgoer, or anyone not completely on board with Kaufman’s unhinged, multi-layered vision would find reasons to criticise the film. However I’d urge them (when in the right frame of mind) to give it another go; a film this poetic, rich and profound was never meant to be understood in just one sitting. Instead, Synecdoche’s riches, which run very deep, reveal themselves rewardingly over the course of several viewings. As the wonderful Roger Ebert put it:
‘I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film, and that I had not mastered it. The second time, because I needed to. The third time, because I will want to. It will open to confused audiences and live indefinitely.’
And he’s a man who knew his films.