Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 25 November 2008
- Written by Jacqueline Monahan
Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
Synecdoche, New York
n. A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steelsword). Dictionary.com for
And wouldn’t you know the film is set in Schenectady, New York? That kind of cleverness is braided unevenly through Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, which plays out like the endlessly unraveling layers of an onion.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a schlub of theater director obsessed with realism and living in a messy hovel with a disheveled wife and child. He seems to be beset by the trials of Job, including body sores, bloody urine and pupils that refuse to dilate.
His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) is a jaded artist of tiny postage-sized portraits with an upcoming show in Berlin which she will attend with the couple’s young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), who spends most of the first ten minutes of the film fretting over her green bowel movements.
Caden directs the classic Death of a Salesman with a crew of young actors, advising them to feel the approaching decrepitude and loss of hope they will eventually face. The play is a hit. Adele attends the Berlin show with Olive, never to return, and Caden wins a MacArthur “genius” grant and vows to do something big and real with it.
Full of bleak discomfort, the rest of the film follows Caden through a non-linear time frame during which he is smitten with a box-office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton), is despondent over his abandonment by Adele, worries about what is becoming of daughter Olive, constructs a massive set of painstakingly realistic city blocks within a huge warehouse, and populates it with actors.
Everyone in Caden’s world, it seems, exists along with an actor assigned to portray them. There’s an actor named Sammy portraying Caden (Tom Noonan) and one named Tammy portraying Hazel (Emily Watson). Hazel lives in a burning house; she bought it that way. Flames and smoke accompany her everyday existence.
Caden marries Claire (Michele Williams) one of his actors and has another daughter never forgetting Olive, whom he is sure is a tattooed 10-year-old in Germany. We are never sure of time passage, fantasy or reality. Is Caden’s play within a play even more real than the one he’s living? The actors and their actual counterparts get blurred in the subsequent intermingled activity, making it difficult to follow both scene and directorial events. Countless other actors join the movement to portray absolute realism until the absurdity and sadness take over. Personas are assumed, traded, and relinquished with an unnerving frequency.
Coherence is only a mere suggestion and logic has long fled the premises by the middle of the film. When Dianne Wiest joins Caden’s cast as Ellen, a cleaning lady replica and becomes Caden himself we barely blink. By this point we are used to Kaufman’s “anything goes” scenarios.
While there may be thought-provoking moments, the film disintegrates under the weight of its characters – here too many of the same characters played by different people – and too many jumps through single moments in time that may or may not have occurred.
The premise is original but the execution turns out to be a mixed-up, uneven foray into a world of miserable people, literally watching their lives go to hell from the outside in, aided by versions of themselves. It may sound insightful and may have even been if done well. The end result is a messy, pretentious, bloated and self-indulgent romp through, life, death, art and despair. Ambitious yes, effective, no.
First-time director Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) lurches through scenes like a newly licensed teen learning manual transmission for the first time. He knows where he wants to go, but can’t transport us there smoothly in any sort of timeframe or path that makes sense. You’ll either applaud his vision or be confused, bored, or irritated by it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman animates Caden with a pathetic, confused mindset that unfortunately mimics that of the viewer. Catherine Keener’s short, forceful appearance toward the beginning of the film gets one’s hopes up, but then they disappear with her. Samantha Morton’s Hazel comes across as hopelessly devoted, and two brief scenes with a character named Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) don’t seem to serve a purpose at all. Michele Williams’ Claire is Caden’s second wife who may or may not be acting the part. Dianne Wiest arrives much too late in the film to attempt any cinematic triage and Emily Watson goes topless simply to prove she’s the better Hazel for Caden.
This is just the type of cryptic, surreal journey that will have some proclaiming the film to be a stunning masterpiece, eager to jump on the “relevance” bandwagon. I get where Kaufman was trying to go; he just didn’t succeed in getting there. While I may eventually give Schenectady a try, Synecdoche, New York will definitely be left off of my itinerary.