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Synecdoche New York (2008)
Directed By: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymore Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Katherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Wiest
Run Time: 2h 4m
TMM Score: 5 Stars
Strengths: Acting, Emotional Connection, Surrealism
Weakness: Challenging Tone
Caden Cotard is a depressed and sick individual. As a theater director, his introspection often takes the form of a play but as his introspection grows, so does his depression, loneliness, and the scale of his experimental new play.
I’m a bad film watching friend. I have a lot of passion for film but it can be a self-centered pursuit sometimes. In my head, I’m the ultimate arbiter of what is good and what is bad in a film. I talk during movies and drop not so subtle hints if I think the movie is bad, thereby ruining anyone’s experience who might have been enjoying the film. I even pretend to know what people are talking about, sometimes, just to seem like I’m in the know.
One of my other bad film watching habits is ignoring film recommendations from my friend Chad. I don’t know why I do this. Sure, I’m busy. Yes, I have to accommodate my wife’s movie watching as well and can’t always choose what I want to watch. That just doesn’t excuse going over a year and even two, sometimes, before watching films he recommends.
After all, he has an excellent track record for recommendations. “The Holy Mountain” was one he practically had to force me to watch and it’s now one of my all time favorite films. “A Separation” was an eye opener to a region of the world that I had no film experience with and “Good Time” introduced me to the Safde brothers who are truly experimental and challenging in their approaches to narrative and character.
Since Netflix recently added “Synecdoche New York” to their streaming menu, it was time to put my longest standing ignorance of a recommendation to rest and fulfill my obligation, not only to my friend, but to myself, since he has never steered me wrong before.
What? Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) wrote and directed this? I’m an idiot. Why didn’t I watch this sooner.
One of my favorite kinds of film, or perhaps themes, is the exploration of existence, death, life, and the philosophies that try to make sense of it all. They aren’t light topics nor are they popular subjects of the Hollywood Blockbuster but, for me, it is the most interesting and fascinating subject because it is something we must all face, sooner or later as our existence expires.
Synecdoche is among the best of these films. Its honesty about dishonesty, singular point of view while being every point of view, and hopeless and painful despair which binds us all together is so brutally declared yet woven delicately lest it frighten off the inner children we all are. It is simultaneously the rough hewn pine box we are headed for and the satin pillow upon which our heads will rest.
It begins as a family drama which is not going well. Two artists drifting further apart as they examine their lives within their respective productions as Caden (Philip Seymore Hoffman, “Boogie Nights”) begins to rot from within both figuratively and literally, suffering from constant bouts with strange illnesses and self-absorption. Of course, no one can live like this for long or live around someone like this for long so his wife leaves and he begins work on a fantastic new play/project through which he hopes to discover what it is that is missing in his life. Why is he unhappy? Why can he not stop thinking about his death? Why can he not pretend like everyone else?
The film explores this universal feeling through a couple of really well done and extraordinarily conceived methods. The first is through brilliant performances from a cast list that is top notch. Scrolling through the cast list is a veritable who’s who of American character actors.
Heading it up, though, is Philip Seymore Hoffman in a role that is so heartbreaking, tender, infuriating, and real that I cannot believe this film is not more widely exclaimed simply because of it. Everyone who knows movies knows that Hoffman was one of the great actors of our day and yet I know of almost no one that would say that this is the movie that proves it. Heck, I only know two or three people who have even seen it.
The other thing that is so brilliant about the film is the way it blends the surreal and continues to build it as it goes. Unlike “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Being John Malkovich” which seem to start at a surreal level and stay pretty consistently at the level, this film starts in a very grounded place which allows you to relate in a more profound way, than these other films, so that when things begin to get surreal you are not so much looking at it thinking ‘wow that’s a weird way to show that.’ You are experiencing it as ‘just the way the world works.’ For all the strange things that happen in the film, it never feels like science fiction, or some kafkaesque strange alternate universe. It feels like it is happening in our world. To us.
I’ll not spoil the film because the unspooling of this man and the world around him is the point of the movie but I will say that this film forces its viewer into a confrontation with their own fears and coping methods, shattering them for the facades they are and asking that we stare into the face of the human condition and not simply move quickly past it, pretending that it will not happen to us. This may make it a difficult watch for some, a terrifying watch for others, but to my mind, a film everyone should see.
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