Synecdoche, New York
Top Ten List: #1 of 2008 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #1 of 2008 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Charlie Kaufman. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Deirdre O'Connell, Alice Drummond, Sadie Goldstein, Lynn Cohen, Jerry Adler, Robin Weigert, Amy Wright, Paul Sparks, Elizabeth Marvel, Robert Seay, Peter Friedman, Josh Pais, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Frank Wood, Rosemary Murphy, Tim Guinee, Christopher Evan Welch. Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman.

Photo © 2008 Sony Pictures Classics/
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
An aging man sits at the bedside of his dying daughter, her skin covered with tattoos of flowers and curlicuing vines. The man, soon to be a mourner, is named Caden, and he is begging forgiveness from the daughter, whose name is Olive, for his having been absent in various ways for so many years of her childhood, and absent in every possible way for all of the years of her adulthood—though he may have spotted her once, in Berlin, when she was stripping and blowing bubbles from a child's plastic jar (was it really her?), and he was a patron (was it really him?), banging on the plexiglas window of his private peeping chamber and screaming her name until a guard barged in (did it really happen?). Here they are now, laying out their hurt, and Olive says she can only accept his apologies if he adds a bizarre and, to his mind, a false codicil: "Do you forgive me ...for having anal sex with your gay male lover?" Why does she want, much less demand, this specious apology, and in place of an earnest one, which he seems more than prepared to furnish? Is the apology as spurious as it sounds? Is it funny, in the deadpan, non sequitur style that Synecdoche, New York has commissioned for most of its jokes, or is it not funny at all, is it empty language? The plot and the mood of the scene are strange, berserk in its muffled away, and then it is garnished with a precious note that you'd think would doom the scene: a single indigo petal drops off a tattoo on Olive's arm and lands, without a sound, on her blankets. Her father asks the question: Do you forgive me? And her answer is, No. And they cry.

Synecdoche, New York, spacious, off-center, centrifugal, brazen and witty and starkly serious, is full of moments like this where humor and delirium fall off the movie like well-cooked meat from a bone, revealing an emotional skeleton that is shocking in its candor as well as its severity. Reel off, if you like, the names of the last dozen, the last thirty movies and television shows where a character begged a relative for forgiveness, where the specific context for that plea suddenly seems gratuitous (maybe even, as here, plainly ridiculous) compared to the aching heart of the question. But can you point to any one of these movies or shows where the request for absolution was met with an outright denial? I can't think of one. "No" is such a simple word, its dramatic power in this scene so tremendous and pure, yet so under-exploited. Caught as a result in this distinctive emotional channel, plotted for us by pilot and cliff-diver and writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I didn't know how to feel about this "No," or about Caden and Olive, both of them laughing through their tears or else crying through laughter, or about their interpreters, Philip Seymour Hoffman (the star of the movie, ceaselessly on camera) and Robin Weigert (a cameo presence, confined to this episode). How extraordinary to be so unsure how to feel, and yet to know how ardently the film is inviting, expressing, cajoling, rewriting, and critiquing feeling.

Synecdoche stands in relation to Kaufman's best previous screenplays (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) in the same way that David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE stood in relation to Mulholland Drive, which means that Synecdoche is, on the surface, a less seductive work with less lubricated points of audience entry, and yet it has the chops and the conviction to amplify while also deconstructing the earlier films. It's harder to find your way into Synecdoche than it is to ride the rails of high-concept razzle-dazzle into Being John Malkovich or of Jon Brion's brightly rueful score or Kate Winslet's fiery, big-hearted performance into Eternal Sunshine. But once you're inside Synecdoche, there are even more routes to follow and questions to pose, both of the film and of yourself. Or, at the very least, if that sounds like a smudge on a film as rich and intricate as Eternal Sunshine, then let's say that among Kaufman's oeuvre so far, Synecdoche houses the hugest, most surprising trajectory from the modest visual surface and the only-gradual disclosure of its metaphors to the grand, complex, nearly infinite scale of what the film ultimately raises and contains. That doesn't mean that Synecdoche (or INLAND) is "better" than the earlier work, and in fact part of the courage of Synecdoche is that it so willingly flaunts those qualities of Kaufman's artistry that have posed the most challenges or caused the most frustration, as well as parading the delicious wit and irreverent inventiveness that have been his most agreeable trademarks. Audiences who dislike or distrust Kaufman are most likely to allege that his work is too difficult, too flattering and indulgent of its own eccentricity (like a politician begging to be called a maverick, at risk of his or her own coherence), or too emotionally cold.

I suppose it's disingenuous to deny that Synecdoche is difficult; literally through the last sequence, the last moment, the film keeps altering and adding possible shorthands for what is "really" happening in it, and most of the scenes are as clipped and seemingly shuffled as jigsaw pieces sliding around in a box. To extend the metaphor, most of these scenes are colorful and suggestive on one side, a strangely-shaped part implying a connection to a resplendent and possible whole, but then flip them over, and they are disconcertingly grey, blank, a cruel farce of implied but impossible connection. But, if you lay aside the expectation that a "real" version of events is ascertainable or even desirable, then Synecdoche is hardly difficult at all: it's a moving sculpture of the experience of looking in the puzzle box, wondering if you're willing to take it up (some of the pieces are you), or if you've already run out of will, or out of time. It's a full-on, twelve-tone concerto of different registers of loneliness and regret (just try resisting this massive wave), and it's unmistakably an immersion in the mindspace of someone who can't distinguish between life and creativity, and who can't tell if creativity is any aid or balm at all in making sense of his life. More likely, the lifelong directorial impulses to gloss, conscript, rehearse, or suppress the material, or else just to hide in the dark of the auditorium, watching, only make life harder to live in the "cowardly depths of [his] lonely, fucked-up being."

No one can doubt that Caden is someone who can't draw clear distinctions among the people or the situations in his life, partly because he's so gigantically self-absorbed, partly because he continually puts himself in situations that attract similar people and invite comparable circumstances to accrue around him. Even as Kaufman complicates the question of who "Caden" finally is—and yes, there are estimable difficulties in breaking down Synecdoche, New York into clear, sequential logic—the rhythms of the film are slowed and dampened by its increasing preoccupation with old age, mortality, and pained retrospection, as though Kaufman is distilling these affects and presenting them for our sympathetic consideration, no matter who is their "actual" locus among his sprawling and increasingly superimposed cast. In other words, difficult the film may be, but it's too gripped with real heartache to muster the energy for self-flattery (its slightly ramshackle, backlot, costume-shop aesthetic also mitigates any movement in this direction). For that very reason, the film is anything but cold. And it's also funny, inimitable and unpredictable, like one of those late-Chaplin dirges spiked with the spirit and merry incongruity of early Chaplin, the sad clown of Limelight having a go at eating his shoes, and playing with his food to the point where it dances. The film's humor and sometime warmth are parts of its test, to itself and to us: can Hamlet stare at a skull and laugh, even if it's unbearably lofty of Caden or of us to get caught treating ourselves like tragic heroes? Can the film be funny but wheedle us into agreeing that humor, at last, is not enough? And nor is genius? That funny and ingenious people also die, and that they tend to take lots of people down with them? Is this all needlessly solemn, or hopelessly banal?

Thank God Kaufman is so funny, and his sensibility is so off-kilter, or the film's forthright interest in aging and dying could easily seem like hackneyed canards, and the project could buckle under the weight of the toughest scenes, which a more conventional movie could never abide without turning into some kind of moribund, dehydrated, Winter Light-style affair. A woman, slouched onto the arm of a couch, admits to her doctor during couples therapy that she fantasized her husband's death so that she could explore the hypothetical sensation of a new, guilt-free start on life. (The doctor, chipper, grasping at straws: "Caden, does that feel awful? Okay, good!") A wife, missed and lamented for decades, dies of lung cancer. A wife leaves on a business trip and doesn't return or even call for over a year. A distraught husband with one alienated partner and one daughter he doesn't know embarks on a heedless affair with a green young thing, guaranteeing him a second alienated partner and a second daughter he doesn't know (and whom he frequently confuses with the other one). A woman's entire raison d'être is to scour, mop, and wipe the apartment of a friend who's never, ever, ever home, and whose geriatric neighbors totter over to check who she is, because they've been told to look out for her, but they just can't be sure, and they have nothing else to do. A woman in a matronly nightgown sits up in bed, speaking to us directly over the body of her sleeping husband, and simply confesses, "I've disappointed him, and he hates me." A woman tells an old flame she's encountered on the sidewalk, "I'm okay," as if this offers some reassurance, and he responds in all honesty, less out of malice than out of his own unresovled pining, "I don't want you to be okay."

But the same movie features a woman who paints female-vantage Francis Bacons the size of postage stamps, and begs off social obligations because she's too busy shipping off her "canvases" in 4x4x4" crates. An ailing man must dip his toe into the swamp of modern-day health care, leading him to a Roy Andersson nightmare, a sub-basement hallway with "Department of Evaluative Services" stenciled on the wall in warehouse font. An old widow, standing with her son by his father's grave, deadpans, "There was so little left of him, they had to fill the coffin with cotton balls to keep him from rattling around." Box-office managers sell regional-theater tickets from inside the safety of an aerated booth with bulletproof plexiglas. Amy Wright, that wonderful oddball from Wise Blood and The Accidental Tourist, sells a burning house with Almodóvar wallpaper and its own, low-contrast lighting scheme to auburn-haired Samantha Morton, who coos about the property's virtues before confessing, "I'm a little concerned about the fire." And that's before she knows that her realtor's son is still living in the basement, and before the years slip by with the flames still licking at the baseboards, and before Synecdoche springs the tart, metafilmic joke that Samantha Morton and Emily Watson seem to have been hatched from the same English factory for hysterical-uncanny dollfaced actresses. Who can even tell them apart?

A theater director, so gripped with mortal anxiety that he knows he's stuck in a clichéd rut, sputters out to his assembled cast, "We're all hurtling towards death," and his blondest, most ambitious, most self-serious actress responds, "It's brilliant!" and he gapes at her, even more baffled than he is disillusioned, wondering what she can mean. And this happens inside of a gargantuan, leaking, slug-shaped hangar, constantly emitting Triassic-sounding noises, which another officious realtor has sold to the writer-director as the ideal space for staging...whatever: "Plays. Shakespeare." Her staccato admits no rejoinder. The space, in all its hulking decrepitude, just screeches back.

Kaufman knows now how to use his humor on screen, knows what it can accomplish in a tiny nick of time, the way certain actresses come to realize how they can use their beauty in the service of a film, or the way certain directors know they can toss up an idiosyncratic, inimitable shot (Ford and his landscapes, Hitchcock and his glasses of milk, Wong and his clocks, Lee and his tracking zooms) and immediately evoke a whole echo-chamber of moods and reverberations, from which point they can quickly leap into new territory. Jokes come succinctly now for Kaufman: there's no full-length video explaining the history of the 7½th floor, only a scumptiously zany line ("I think Hazel would do that, Hazel") that barely halts an uncomfortable conversation between two rivals, or a verbal redundancy about "strong female actresses" that pegs its speaker as a bit dim but not a Woody Allen-style idiot (Kaufman is nicer than Allen), or a funny albeit upsetting pantomime of a man who's trying to re-learn to swallow. The same man is teaching himself in the same scene to trot out ridiculous, coin-of-the-realm theaterspeak in order to lure a spurned lover into working on his new project: "Players and patrons alike, we'll all be bathing in the same menstrual blood. And nocturnal emissions."

On the whole, these three scenes are about lovers watching as they are replaced and weakly trying to resist it, about recent sufferers of heartbreak being nudged back into social life, and about women who know better nonetheless falling in line with windmill-tilting endeavors powered entirely by male narcissism (what can he swallow, and what, in her way, can she?). But the humor makes them oblique, and more palatable; it sprinkles the scenes with basil, cinnamon, oregano, whatever, so that life's bland truths or nauseating impasses can be structured as dramatic scenes and considered as art, and we won't always see what's coming, or how it's meant. Sometimes the scene starts off straight, or depressed, or cruel, and the humor arrives just in time to vivify it. Example: Caden sits writing 4x6 cards with single-sentence directions that he likes to hand to his hundreds and hundreds of actors as they improvise, to keep their scenes "fresh," even though he's barely attending to them. Worse, the directions are heartless. "Your wife just had a miscarriage" and "You were raped last night" are two of the notes we can read before the camera tilts back from his scribbling hand for a shot of all of Caden's index cards, gridding outward in perfect symmetry to every edge of the frame. Then we cut to Samantha Morton's Hazel, probably a play-Hazel in Caden's mind, but in any case a woman who has previously been so stubborn about steering clear of Caden's proposals. Her sudden predicament: "I've caused an outbreak of conjunctivitis at my office. I don't know how it happened. I need a job." How many cards did Caden write before he came up with that one? The ways we stretch to manipulate each other, the pathetic convolutions of our fantasies, the variety of life's abrupt obstacles: it's suddenly humorous, and not just sad, or not just too big to think about, as it often is in Synecdoche, New York.

You can see how quickly I can get lost in my own treasure-chest of remembered fragments from this afternoon's screening: it's tempting just to describe the movie's moments, at risk of conveying nothing about what makes them comical or moving or fresh in context. I'm trying to steer clear of the endless stream of movie homonyms that Synecdoche invokes: a little 2001, a little Great Ziegfeld, some chords of Masked and Anonymous and of I'm Not There for different and un-Dylanish reasons, a more worldly Fountain, a less lovable Groundhog Day. The filmmaker Synecdoche called to mind most often, even more often than Fellini, was Luis Buñuel, partly because the purposefully inert dramatics are enlivened by such lively cutting and improbable inserts (a zeppelin, a pustule, a hot shower with no one in it), and partly because of the film's dispassionate view of an eccentric gaggle of folks trapped inside a surreal schema—though Kaufman explores a much more secular form of delirium and agnosticism than Buñuel does. He is haunted by the sterility or possibly the death not of God but of Art, though I suppose Buñuel was haunted by that, too. In any event: I don't know where or whether it's appropriate to say yes, it's tempting to wish that Synecdoche, lensed by Blue Velvet's Frederick Elmes, looked a bit more polished or had a visual imagination to match its verbal and structural and philosophical aspirations. But isn't that already a lot to achieve, and isn't the homespun look of the wigs and the sets and the talking-heads close-ups exactly the element that saves the film from seeming aloof and over-worked? I concede that some bits are clunkier than others, like the endless stream of double-entendres (pipes, turkeys, drags, sycoses), or the cameos by Hope Davis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, somehow less in tune with Kaufman's odd modes of achieving depth than Michelle Williams is, or the luminous Dianne Wiest is, or Josh Pais is, or Philip Seymour Hoffman certainly is, delivering nuanced and consummate scenework throughout without looking fussy or beleaguered. He ensures that Synecdoche will cohere around a characterization and not just a sprawl of conceits. One of the actors who gets Kaufman perfectly and has the least time to show it is someone I won't name, because her provisions to the movie are so late-breaking and delicate, but she's playing a woman whom Caden and his alter egos have almost forgotten, and she's a veteran of an earlier Kaufman script where, surrounded by three-dimensional characters, she was stuck playing a stock figure in a scene that simply advanced the plot. It's lovely that Kaufman casts her here, and endows her in the film's closing moments with mystery, allure, tenderness, implication.

Synecdoche, New York knows from theater, from absurdism, from long-term relationships, from disaffection, from Hollywood, from character actors, from music cues, from Rilke, from stupid waiting-room magazine articles, from receding George H.W. Bush hairlines as devastating as the retreat from Moscow, from subtle gradations of background or foreground focus, from when to frame the actor so intimately that the chin or the crown goes missing, from songs that can stand the weight of bridging across scenes, from Jacques Tati, from Alain Resnais, from non-traditional casting and transgendered empathy, from Krapp's Last Tape, from when to sneak an actor into the edge of a crowded shot. It's well aware of the lingering threat of mawkishness, which is why Caden keeps devising but thankfully rejecting titles like Flawed Light of Love and Grief and Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost and An Obscure Moon Lighting an Obscure World. It cannily uses these throwaway titles as winsome release valves for an audience that's starting to worry that Kaufman is turning into Brooklyn's shabby-sleeved wannabe Bergman. He eases pomposity with a mordant joke ("Harold Pinter died – no, wait, he won the Pulitzer Prize"), and then explodes the cramped subconscious of Malkovich and the rainy playground memories of Eternal Sunshine into full-blown Cinecittàs of existential gloom and you-did-this-to-yourself isolation. He believes more than ever in the seriousness of what he's written, and in the trust we will bestow upon him as he leads us, circuitously, along the paths of what worries and flusters him, and what gives him quizzical pause. Or maybe he isn't thinking of us at all (too much intimacy, too hard or too irritating to entertain our proximity) but he's bold enough to put himself through a tonal and structural wringer that has enough shape and substance that we want to pass through that wringer, too.

It's more impossible than usual to know if the rest of your audience is watching the same movie you are. Two old ladies sitting in front of me chuckled as the end credits rolled, knowing more than I possibly could when they said, "Yep, that's how it feels," presumably about old age. But then one of them chuted right back to square one when she asked her friend, "Why was he doing a play in his own house?" And then, after a few terse exchanges, and with cryptic but suggestive meaning, the other one said, "Philip Seymour Hoffman did two movies, too. One was weird, and one was regular." I love Synecdoche, New York for being weird and for being regular, and for being two movies at the very, very least. (By my count, it's closer to six.) If there weren't other movies playing simultaneously inside it, the surface feature could never get away with a puffy, self-assessing line like when Caden pronounces, "It IS about dating. Dating... birth, death, life, family, all of that," though Hoffman cannily reads the line as though Caden himself is impatient with it, as though saying all of that is somehow saying nothing about what Synecdoche is really about. It could never get away with Dianne Wiest "explaining" the protagonist in a nutshell, to the literal stupefaction of the rest of the cast ("You mean, she's RIGHT?!" someone grouses, though she might not be, or not in the way it first appears...). Without so much dimension and refraction working in its favor, the movie would probably have to think twice about naming a little girl after the color of her own poop, or about listening into a radio show about autumn as a leitmotif in literature (though the earth-toned medicines and anti-depressants that Caden gobbles by the fistful are a great touch), or about tugging at Death of a Salesman the way All About My Mother tugs at the shimmering threads of A Streetcar Named Desire, or about a titular pun on a town most people don't know, or about using a title in the first place that most people won't know how to say, or about telling a story that's barely a story. Thank goodness Synecdoche takes all of these risks regardless, and that it's so multiple and stretchy that it fits all of them in, and so happy to be paid attention to that it sneaks little clues to the closest observers, and so humane that it puts moving, credible faces on every problem it raises, and so funny that the heartache is tolerable, and so prodigious in its humble-looking, hit-and-miss, hitting-even-when-it's-missing way that suddenly, at long last in 2008, you can't wait to go back to the movies again. Grade: A

Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature; Robert Altman Award (Best Ensemble Cast)
Los Angeles Film Critics Circle: Best Production Design (Mark Friedberg)

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