Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

By Andrew Feinberg

“I’m such an idiot for not knowing about this book,” Hazel says to Caden in an early scene of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” I felt the same way for not knowing about this movie, and you should too if you haven’t seen it yet. The book in question is Franz Kafka’s The Trial,a story in which a faceless, unknowable authority prosecutes a man for an unspecified crime. “Synecdoche” itself adapts many Kafkaesque elements through a re-examination of fate and fatalism. It wrestles with that singular burning question of our existence: “what is the meaning of my life?” Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the everyman of our time. Settled into a very middle-of-the-road life, he grows deeply unsettled with the speed at which time passes and accumulates a number of miscellaneous physical ailments that all spell out “death.” As a theatre director, he worries about what kind of mark he’ll leave on the world. “I wanna do something important while I’m still here,” he laments to his physiatrist. “That would be the time to do it, yes,” she replies. As the central characters in his life come and go without warning, Caden turns to the theatre to make sense of it all. The arrival of a MacArthur genius grant ultimately inspires him to realize the grand endeavour he had been dreaming up. Caden envisions a Gesamtkunstwerk—a master theatre piece—uncompromising in its depiction of the Truth as not yet spoken, life and love “in all of its messiness.” It may sound somewhat ambitious, but the grant is apparently enough to buy a small country. In a way, this is Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece as much as it is Caden Cotard’s. The movie mines the very deepest depths of human angst and aspiration through the eyes of a single individual. The story of Caden is one of a life all-too-well examined. It comes from a certain perspective for sure, but no one in it—no one in life—is immune to its disturbing shifts in time, space, and circumstance. As in Kafka’s writing, life is indeed a trial for Caden Cotard. It’s made all the more challenging by his obsession with its inevitable finality. Its fleeting nature is mirrored in the intangible status of the self. In strict biological terms, we’re fundamentally different people now than we were just a few years ago—most cells don’t last very long. That said, our perceptions of ourselves and those around us fail to keep pace. All we see of each other, in the end, is what we can interpret from the performances of our daily lives. “Synecdoche, New York” is as eccentrically self-referential a movie as you’re likely to ever see. As the title suggests, its vision is akin to the human spirit—simultaneously compact and unbounded in depth. Everyone should see it because at its heart, it is a work of true beauty. It is the story of one man’s life in all its messiness, a visual representation of what he finds meaning in, and a confrontation with the outermost boundaries of human ability. refresh –>