The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Fall 2008.
Toward the middle of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on an airplane reading a self-help book called Getting Better, written by his therapist Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis). Suddenly, he looks over to see Gravis sitting across the aisle from him. He says: “I’m not sure I’m getting the book.” She replies: “It’s getting you.”
This is the experience one might feel while watching Kaufman’s directorial debut—a surreal, breathtaking masterpiece about life, love, death, and everything in between. Yes, the film is about many things (as well as how these things in turn relate back to even more things [the title is a clue as to how this works]). But to be more specific, in regard to the scene mentioned above, the film is about how we read our own experiences into the world around us—how we interpret things like people and art egocentrically. Kaufman’s choice of using a self-help book to illustrate this point is a brilliant one. This is because self-help books (like horoscopes and religions) play on a person’s egocentric worldview. These books offer the most general advice imaginable, but a vulnerable person seeking help or spiritual guidance will interpret the advice as relating specifically back to him or her.
Now, getting back to the movie, Caden Cotard is a theater director who, at the start of the film, is mounting a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which the two leads are played by young actors. The success of this interpretation leads to Caden being awarded the MacArthur genius grant. With the grant money, he plans to write and direct a theatrical production more “true” to himself.
But what is “true” to Caden Cotard? This is what he must uncover, and this is what we’re after as we watch the movie unfold. Caden rents out a large warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district and gets to work. He will direct people in their everyday lives on a set that is a direct replica of the outside world, and he will even hire an actor named Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself.
Meanwhile, Caden is also beginning to lose his autonomic functions, and the various doctors he’s visiting can’t give him a straight answer as to why. He’s wondering if he’s dying. As a matter of fact, he is. But it’s not for any particular reason (perhaps why each doctor keeps sending him to a new specialist). It’s simply because he, like all things, must die. His loss of autonomic functions only helps him examine his life more closely and how the different parts of his body relate back to his brain (this, you will notice, relates back to the film’s title and its main thematic thrust). For example, in a scene where Caden experiences sadness, he must use artificial tears where in the past the tears would be automatic. And in a scene where he is about to eat food, he must perform odd mouth exercises to jump-start his salivation. The upside (or the downside) of such a closely examined life is that Caden becomes fully aware of his own mortality. Now he has a time limit. What should he do?
Unexpectedly, he decides to clean. His painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has taken their four-year-old daughter Olive with her to Germany, and they probably aren’t coming back. So Caden cleans her studio. What does the room look like under the layers and layers of paint and grime? What does his life look like?
With Adele gone, perhaps this will give Caden the opportunity to get closer to Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office attendant at his theater who very clearly has a crush on him. Hazel is spontaneous and full of life—almost the exact opposite of Caden. This can be seen in her house. For some unexplained reason, it is always on fire. Is this because she, unlike Caden, is always aware of the transience of life and the importance of living for the moment? Maybe.
Oddly enough, it is through Sammy acting out Caden’s life in the theater that Caden begins to realize how much he loves Hazel and how much she means to him. But—not surprisingly—Sammy ends up falling for Hazel, too. So Caden settles for Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress he hired to play Hazel. What do we make of this? Are Caden and Hazel really in love with each other? Or are they only in love with the societal roles they play for each other?
Speaking of roles, Caden soon begins to realize what we’ve already discussed—that in life, we interpret the world in a way that relates back to us—we assign roles to the people and objects we encounter. This is why he still thinks of his daughter Olive as a four-year-old, even after she has been gone for years and is much older and living in Germany. He needs her to be a four-year-old for him because that’s the role she was playing when he last saw her. Her own life and experiences beyond that role are offensive to him. Is it fatherly concern that upsets Caden when he finds out Olive is being used by Adele’s friend Maria as an art object, or is it anger that she is no longer his little girl? Maybe it’s both.
Later, Caden finally comes face to face with Olive, and he realizes that he must play a role for her now—one that isn’t true to him, but that is true to her. The situation has been reversed. It is one of the most revelatory and heartbreaking scenes in the whole movie.
Clearly, there is a lot to think about in Synecdoche, New York, and the film surely raises plenty of important questions. But it’s also a pleasure to watch. Kaufman juggles philosophy, drama, and comedy with incredible ease, and the performances are some of the best of the year. Hoffman is indeed the standout, followed by Diane Wiest in a surprising role toward the film’s end. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and yes, even though it doesn’t happen a lot at the movies these days, you’ll think. Best of all, you can trust that Kaufman isn’t taking you for a nonsensical ride through his own self-indulgence. Never will you feel that Synecdoche, New York isn’t working, even if you might not be “getting” it yet. After all, it will certainly be getting you.