Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

Everyone loves Caden Cotard’s (Hoffman) production of Death of a Salesman. He casts young people to play older ones, and in so doing has put in the mind of the audience the sense that eventually young people will turn old, and dawn will go down to day, and so on. Everyone loves it but Adele (Catherine Keener), Caden’s wife. “I can’t get excited about your restaging someone else’s old play,” she says. She walks in front of him, rapidly, as he toddles behind. “There’s nothing personal in it.” She calls him a “tool of suburban, blue-haired regional theater subscribers.” It is the movie’s single most energetic moment. Adele, at this point, really hates Caden; Caden is, naturally, rather estranged from her. Watching her put her eyeteeth into his abdomen and walk away with his small intestine dangling bloody in her mouth is thrilling. The movie never touches this moment again, never puts its fingers above the hum of a live circuit. It’s a shame that the movie is too scared to let us in on what we all know: Caden Cotard is to theater directors what Howard Roark was to architecture. When he does begin to make something original, it’s a nightmare of indulgent bourgeois navel-gazing, a story in which everyone will have his or her own story told, a play in which all the characters are main characters. If you’re favorably inclined towards Caden, it tops out like Kermit the Frog’s ode to extras from The Muppets Take Manhattan:

Kermit the Frog: That’s what’s been missing from the show! That’s what we need! More frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and… and whatever! You’re not gonna watch the show, you’re gonna be in the show!

If you’re a little less sanguine about the man, he sounds rather more like Arthur Jensen:

Arthur Jensen: And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality – one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock – all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

All men will have a corollary on the stage, to say what they would have said, to show the events to the world as a great opening of all books to be read synchronously in the hangar where Caden has built his replica of the city. It is somehow even more boring in a film than it would be in practice. It is a bastardization of Linda’s “Attention must be paid” monologue, a misreading that wouldn’t pass in an eleventh-grade English class. When she says, “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him,” she means we must pay attention to Willy. Yet if the nameless play is a thousands Willies Loman, then how on earth can we pay attention to any of them? If I thought that the movie viewed Caden as the boombox playing “Vesti la giubba” on repeat for two decades, that might be one thing. But I don’t think it’s a comedy—it’s not funny, which sort of matters—and I’m not sure Charlie Kaufman would know a joke if two separate ones (but dressed identically for reasons) came up to him and knocked his glasses off. There’s a story somewhere in Synecdoche, New York, a story about a man who is failing over and over again in his failing years, and to whom attention must be paid. For roughly half the movie I was even fairly sure we might get that story, and I was ready to soak in Caden’s middle-aged disappointment. There’s something in there in which Adele leaves him and takes their daughter, Olive, with them; there’s something there in the fact that Adele’s art is so much more interesting than his. There are droplets of life in his therapist, Madeleine (Hope Davis), whose self-help books are, shockingly, not very helpful. The film imagines a future in which zeppelins come back, and where New York turns into a battlefield, and in both cases I think the movie deserves points for boldness. Above all I liked the mutable shifts in time, proving that time is really no more than we make it. (There’s a genuinely good line in there where Hazel, who is attracted for Caden for reasons that probably have more to do with Kaufman’s vanity than any serious interest within a down-to-earth character, tells Caden that his wife has been gone for a year. She’s been gone a week, he replies stubbornly.) It’s something Kaufman’s always done well with, and Synecdoche is no different on that front. How quickly, wordlessly the time flies in this story, until all of a sudden Caden won the Macarthur Fellowship more than seventeen years ago. But Synecdoche ultimatly becomes an emperor without clothes: it takes us further and further from the character and tries to invest us in the doubled world he’s made. There are clues in the film that suggest that mental illness is at play, or that French modernism and postmodernism is influential. If this really is a take on Baudrillard, then it’s done what I never believed possible: it made him dull.

Synecdoche, New York is a film which eschews catharsis, which, given its theatrical background, feels like a bad move. If there is catharsis, it’s in rehearsal for Caden’s nameless play as they reenact a funeral. The minister is rather more vocal personage in the play, as one might expect. He takes the opportunity to discuss the thin connections of our lives:

Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose, but maybe you won’t know for twenty years, and you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out.

There aren’t enough fart noises in the world to drown out this “revelation,” which is up there with brainwaves like “Politicians are bought and paid for by moneyed interests” or “Religious people live by different rules than the ones they say they live by” for sheer original insight. At this moment, the film irrevocably blows itself into smithereens, completely distancing itself from any kind of interesting ending for Caden. I don’t necessarily mind the one that does wait for him: the man whose poop has commanded significant attention throughout the film cleans Adele’s unoccupied bathroom for years, probably. It is a whisper instead of a bang, the whisper that waits for the vast majority of us, and if that is indeed the point, then the movie doesn’t have the adroitness to make that whisper interesting enough to hold our attention. Caden may be something of an everyman in the end, genius grant or no, but everymen like this are for us to ignore in grocery stores instead of watching for two hours.

The irony of Synecdoche, New York is that even if its writing is quite awful, its actors are all trying really hard. Caden Cotard may not be subhuman, but Hoffman is as good here as I’ve ever seen him. In the first half of the movie, when there’s still hope for it, Hoffman plays a hangdog man, one who is going through the motions of his life, occasionally scared by a doctor’s appointment or the specter of bad reviews, but who for the most part wakes up, gets the mail, reads the newspaper, wants a younger and more beautiful woman than Adele but doesn’t jump at the opportunity for some randy infidelity. Through all of this Hoffman is spot-on: for such a vision of hopelessness he is perfection. Keener is likewise brilliant as a person whose hopelessness turns into anger and then into movement. (Is it too late to watch a movie about Adele Lack instead? Has that ship sailed? No wonder she is exiled to Germany, for a present Adele would eclipse Caden the way the moon eclipses the sun every now and then.) Samantha Morton plays Hazel, who is a person who only exists in fiction by men about men, with a tenderness that makes us feel very genuinely for her. Strong supporting turns by Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, and Dianne Wiest prove that actors can still act, and that without anything interesting to say it all melts away pretty quickly.

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