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New York City Film – Bee Reel: ‘Synecdoche, New York’ Too Ambitious for Words

Posted Friday, November 14th, 2008 at 6:00 pm by Jessica in Cultural Bees. More in 10010

Award-winning screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman‘s directorial debut is endlessly impressive.  And I mean endless. Let’s start with the title, a play on words for New York City and Schenectady, using the literary term, “synecdoche,” which refers to the use of a word that denotes a part of something for the whole – like when cads say, “skirts” in reference to women.  (I realize very few people are that politically incorrect anymore, but it was the first example that popped into my head.)

The film follows theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his life collapses around him. A pipe bursts in his dilapidated house, knocking him hard in the face and somehow causing him to suffer bizarre physical symptoms including multi-colored fecal matter, an inability to salivate and seizures.  To make matters worse, his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him with hardly any explanation and moves to Berlin with their adorable daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and her peculiar, amoral friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  As Caden waits in vain for them to return, he falls in love with the box office girl at his version of Death of a Salesman, Hazel (Samantha Morton) and wins a MacArthur grant for his theatrical achievements.  He grows preoccupied with how he will spend the money, obsessing over how to make it brutal, massive, important and real.  (His words, not mine.)  Meanwhile, Hazel gets fed up listening to his neurotic, egomaniacal ranting set to the beat of her biological clock, ditches him and marries someone else.

Time seems utterly distorted, sped up.  Caden marries an actress, Claire (Michelle Williams), has a daughter with her, and begins work on his theater project, for which he has built an enormous model of New York City and cast hundreds of actors to play out his reality.  (See how the title works itself in?)  As the production hurdles onward for years and years, Caden remains haunted by the elements of his early life – ex-wife Adele, daughter Olive, love Hazel – which seem somehow more real than his current state.  The theater piece takes on a life of its own, growing more and more complex and making it difficult to distinguish the play from the reality of Caden’s life that is tragically, completely wrapped up in his pain.

Are you exhausted?  Because I am.

While the film is certainly something to think about, there are numerous things left unexplained (namely, the nature and purpose of Caden’s illness), the presence of the filmmaker’s own ego is oppressively obvious, and, most of all, the film simply has too much going on.  Realistically, there were two complex and fascinating narratives in this one film – if separated, it would be Oscar time once again for Kaufman.  Together, it’s overwhelming, claustrophobic and alienating.  I would still suggest movie buffs take a look, but not without total suspension of all expectations for resolution and an anti-depressant.

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