If you’re familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s work, then you understand that “Synecdoche, New York” is going to tell a story that’s abstract, that feels normal but is completely out of the ordinary, and rarely feels like it’s making sense. Now that he’s directing his own film this time, Kaufman, the brilliant but challenging writer behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” has creative control to create yet another layer of bizarre, making this film even harder to understand in one sitting.
The truth is that “Synecdoche” is a fascinating movie for the small (and ever-shrinking) club of people who like watching movies they don’t understand so that they can try and understand them. Anyone who tries hard enough can begin to break down the ideas generating this story, but it’s not a film for the passive viewer who wants a traditional story told in a conventional way.
The film is about the life of Caden Cotard (Hoffman), an apparently ill middle-aged director who is married and has a six-year-old child that leave him. Feeling lonely and believing he’s dying, he receives a grant to work on a play and giant warehouse to stage it in, and he decides he is going to create something that will attempt to make sense of life, namely his, as well as love and death. The combination of his own delusions and the absurdity of that feat — to create the ultimate work of art accurately reflecting life — is a good portion of what makes this film so unfathomable yet so fascinating.
Left emotionally blindsided by his wife (Catherine Keener), Caden is surrounded by the temptations of the other women he works with (there’s not but one male supporting actor) such as the box office secretary who has always loved him (Samantha Morton) and the star of his last production (Michelle Williams), Caden can’t make sense of his feelings and uses his art to do it. He does so for years upon years, time jumping forward at strange intervals, revealing more of who Caden really is.
Kaufman is all about the visual manifestation of thoughts and ideas, which make his film so abstract. As a director, he does a very nice job of making the film seem like it happens in a natural way despite its absurdities. His scenes are very short and move quickly and there’s no map guiding you or leash to pull you along. It’s frustrating and deprives you of ever having a truly deep and satisfactory “aha” moment, but it also gives you free reign to take from it what you will, even if some parts left you dumbstruck.
“Synecdoche” is a film about the life of a man trying to make a play of his life of him making a play of his life — to give you a sense of what you’re up against watching this film. In that way it is both astute and ultimately meaningless, but unquestionably heartfelt and honest. Kaufman doesn’t do this to win creativity points, he does it to find unique ways of exploring and understanding the traditional themes of love and mortality in the hopes of coming across something truly profound. It’s exactly what Caden tries to do. Making complete sense of life is futile, but making a concerted effort is art.