On the brink of starting his "masterpiece" -- a close-to-life play performed in a replica of New York built inside a warehouse -- Synecdoche, New York's main character Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) admits to Claire (Michelle Williams), his lead actress and future second wife, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Claire, an ingénue, philosophizes, “Knowing that you don’t know is the most essential step to knowing, you know?” Here, the audience is cued to laugh, and, of course, they will. Yet one can’t help to also ponder the intended seriousness of the dialogue. After this moment, Synecdoche, New York spirals into a violent blur of surreal scenes that leave us questioning individual aspects and details of the film for hours and days after it's over.
It would be an understatement to say that Charlie Kaufman has an affinity for confusion. From crossing meta-fictional lines in both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation to disturbing a sense of chronological order in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s apparent Kaufman revels in surrealism and existential rumination. In interviews, he states a preference for films that obscure logical narrative. With Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, Kaufman follows through by refusing to hand-feed the audience explanations. Instead, he takes us on an uncomfortable ride that balances somewhere between narrative and structural eccentricity and the instability of emotions within the array of characters--both elements that intentionally undermine the story itself.
Surprisingly, Kaufman excels most when he focuses on emotions. The characters are more relatable than they appear to be, at first. If the audience feels disconnected, it’s partly due to the idiosyncratic subplots that, in hindsight, force the ethos to distract from the pathos. When Caden’s on-and-off love interest Hazel (Samantha Morton) purchases a house that is, quite literally, always on fire (and stays burning for what seems like years), there's a loneliness there that the film never makes too explicit. The emotions are there, especially in Caden, but everything becomes so multi-layered that we can't focus on any one theme for too long.
Some subplots do radiate a more compassionate view, however, in which we feel intimately tied to Caden’s psyche. A later scene involves the aftermath of Caden’s mother’s death. Caden takes Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress who plays Hazel in his play, to the house he grew up in. They walk to his mother’s room, which is splattered in blood from something called the “home invasion,” as Caden remarks, “I thought they would have cleaned this up.” The two then have sex in his childhood bedroom, in a scene that is simultaneously awkward and engaging, dark and humorous, emotional and just too full of ideas to process all at once. The film is full of these overwhelming moments.
Yet, despite the surreal narrative, Kaufman has created characters that are as "real" as the ones in everyday life. Caden, whose last name is a play on Cotard’s syndrome, is in a constant hypochondriac fear that he's dying. His life literally crumbles once his wife and daughter leave for Europe to promote her art--microscopic self-portraits. Caden’s real emotion derives from the loss of his daughter, Olive, and through the diary she left in her room, he reads about her life as it continues without him. Hoffman is always superb at gracefully portraying disgrace, but here, his sadness in losing his daughter is acted is especially riveting.
But characters' emotional ties are anything but clear, and the Kaufman continues to test the audience's attention. The subplots that involve Caden’s struggle to rekindle his relationship with Olive are simply distracting and confusing, taking us away from the deeper dimensions of Caden's character. In fact, there are many characters whose side stories go largely untouched. For example, Sammy (Tom Noonan) has followed Caden for years and knows his whole life story, so Caden casts the actor to portray him in the play. But Sammy's portrayal even further disconnects us from Caden.
In any other film, this would all appear to be superfluous or poorly constructed, but once Synecdoche's overarching aesthetic and philosophy settles in, it becomes apparent that every scene -- distracting or not -- is intentional. The word "synecdoche" means “part for the whole, or whole for the part,” and Kaufman desperately wants the audience to feel those disconnections (or rare connections) between the main and minor characters, despite how tenuous they may seem in a traditional narrative sense. It's a film that emphasizes simultaneous understanding, multiple layers and obscured realities as something worth pondering, with parts describing the whole or the whole describing the parts. If the film seems confusing, it's because of its philosophical complexity.
As a first-time director, Kaufman’s amateur struggles are evident on film, but this auteurist venture is nonetheless exciting. As in Caden’s play, Kaufman is here constructing a warehouse within the warehouse of his play, where a smaller “reality” takes shape. The deeper Caden digs himself, detaching from reality, the more aware he becomes in his quest to find the meaning of his life. Pablo Picasso’s quote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” is well suited to the endeavors of the protagonist, as well as Kaufman himself. Despite the disorienting structure, Kaufman is obviously in command the entire time. Whether one sees it as a beautifully constructed mess or an overload of ideas is subjective, but no matter what you decide, Synecdoche, New York is among the most compelling of contemporary films.