Synecdoche, New York

First a few notes. 1. Check out the new name and tell your friends! (the old one will still send you here though, so don’t fret). 2. Sorry for the longer review. It’s Charlie Kaufman, you try keeping it short and simple! Thanks for reading!

When discussing Charlie Kaufman I feel it is necessary to make one’s stance on his films explicit. I was a fan of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, but I would rarely, if ever, choose one of his films to watch on a lazy afternoon or use one of them as an example of a film I love. Synecdoche, New York happens to be tailored too intensely for Kaufman’s niche following, which made it especially difficult to watch.


Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director who has found success from his work, but very little elsewhere. His marriage to Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) dissipates and his relationships with other women like Hazel (Samantha Morton) and Claire (Michelle Williams) fall through in the same way at the fault of his crippling insecurities and inability to maintain a stable mental state. After receiving a grant for a new show, Caden creates an endless show that portrays his life in a miniature model (hence the title).

The good parts of Synecdoche are similar to other Kaufman works. Excellent acting, interesting social commentary and a running metaphysical, cerebral element keeping the viewer intrigued and relatively entertained. The oddest depiction of the commentaries is the constant fear of death that has infiltrated our modern society’s medical framework. Every doctor has almost no information for a patient, and one is sent from specialist to specialist with rarely any positive, or informative, results. This issue plagues Caden, but for only half of the film and it is mysteriously dropped from primary focus to complete afterthought. Caden personifies how the lack of depth to life choices diminishes every decision we make and neutralizes any “ultimate” originality for humankind.

Everything about Synecdoche relates Caden – or Kaufman – to the tragic lives of legendary painters who had mistresses, wives, health problems and intense personal issues. Unfortunately, as the film evolves, everything becomes an incomprehensible mess. You begin to get the sense that Kaufman lost his train of thought and is simply making scenes up trying to find his way again. As Caden creates the play, he hires actors to play himself, Hazel and other personalities in his life, but then hires people to play the actors who are personifying x-person and so on. There is no end to the number of levels of actors and portrayals.

The biggest issues that arise in Synecdoche are length and purpose. The film is just flat-out too long. The entire plot could’ve been wrapped up in just over an hour…or less.  Scenes drag on trying to extract every ounce of philosophical revelation. Yet, with every new revelation, we are given substance that never materializes. The personal reflection of Caden is both insightful and unperceptive. He is gaining knowledge about himself, but he is also adding fuel to the flame of his insecurity. Kaufman keeps adding and adding until the very end, so the film stays at an excruciatingly slow pace and more or less goes nowhere. All of this leads to the penultimate ending (yes, penultimate. There could have been at least four logical endpoints).

The entire film follows Caden. Hoffman is in almost every scene, if not all, so naturally the end would have his self-realization and ultimate inner peace, right? Wrong! Don’t worry this isn’t much of a spoiler; it’s more of a giant slap in the face. Kaufman spends so much time emphasizing Caden’s personal growth and enlightenment only to have a random woman give the final, resolute speech. It is such an insulting way to “reward” you for watching two hours of his inane, meta-babble and it doesn’t even make sense. Needless to say, I ended the film extremely frustrated.

If you are a fan of Kaufman, you will most likely enjoy it with the same blind adoration Michelle Williams’ Claire has for Caden. Synecdoche, New York is well made and wonderfully performed, but there is a distinct lack of direction and desire about it that prevents you from ever surpassing a bland interest. It’s a film that probably requires more than one viewing, but doesn’t garner enough interest to do so.

  1. I struggled to make it to the end of this. I thought it was incredibly pretentious.

    • The movie, not your review…

      • Haha I wouldn’t blame you either way. I struggled just getting my thoughts straight writing about it.

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