Synecdoche, New York (2008) (R)

From the mind of Charlie Kaufman...that should be enough to entice any normal moviegoer into pausing when perusing through the list of possibilities. Yes, Charlie Kaufman is brilliant, nuanced, genius, self-interested, and generally sensationally original. You can't deny that "Synecdoche, New York", Kaufman's directorial debut, is anything less than the sum of all of these.
The movie begins as theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is putting on the newest of his creations. He seems to be becoming bored with his success and great acclaim. It's hard work being a talented artist, so he sinks into a pocket of what he considers to be mediocrity and the rest of the theater world considers to be brilliant. He's not really testing himself.
Ever the germaphobe, Caden finds himself getting concerned with a continuing series of troubling symptoms including blood in his urine and stool and the appearance of pustules and odd veins all over his body. As the viewer, we wonder why he's not more concerned with the sudden problems that arise. It starts Caden off on a roller coaster of self-depreicating, self-loathing, and self-examining that eventually leads him to make a conclusion: it's all about death.
While this is going on, Caden's wife Adele (Catherine Keener) decides that she has had enough of their romance and takes their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein, who manages to be both annoying and adorable) to Berlin for a "vacation". After she doesn't return and starts her own life as an artist, Caden is left snatching at the fraying threads of something he wants to call life. He plunges into despair for a meaning, searching, searching, searching, but never finding. It's this horrible sensation that I think a lot of us have faced: trying to equate meaning with existence and never being fully able to without relying on some supernatural force. It's quite depressing actually and Kaufman doesn't shy away from it.
Therein lies the problem. Because the movie is so invested in seeing a character stretched to the breaking point again and again, it becomes a little redundant and monotonous to see Caden break down and sob because of the many things that go wrong in his life...and let me just say, Kaufman does his best to treat Caden like shit.
In the theater, there's a perky young girl named Hazel (Samantha Morton) who works at the box office and has more than a little crush on Caden. She tries to seduce him many times, but it seems written in the stars that these two should never be together. The romance just dissipates.
As the movie continues, Caden becomes increasingly more hell-bent on returning to his daughter Olive and restoring their relationship; but that seems impossible.
Then Caden receives a grant and is told to make something impressive. He places himself under the pressure of making the best, most genuine, truly true play that anyone could possibly imagine. He recreates an image of New York in a warehouse and fills it with actors who would play out an entire day. Rehearsal runs for over twenty years; but you shouldn't let that concern you because the movie plays with chronological time and surrealism so much it's difficult to understand what we should take as literal and what is Kaufman twisting the system to his liking.
One such example is Hazel's house, perpetually on fire for decades, but never burning to the ground. It's kind of humorous and also kind of pointless.
Caden eventually realizes that he cannot possibly try to finish the play because it's a work in progress, though he desperately wants to find a conclusion and leave his mark on society saying "yes, that's mine, and I'm truly proud of that". He wishes for immortality through art; but you need to only blink a few times before you start to see Kaufman in Caden.
As a movie about the failure to produce a work of art that truly represents everything, Kaufman does his best to live through his work as a failure as a success. It's this kind of logic that makes your brain start to hurt that is typical of Kaufman movies and it only becomes exacerbated when the play Caden is putting on starts to cast actors of the actors so as to better recreate the situations.
Fluidity of roles takes over and soon they start to play each other and the camera weeps for the situation. How lonely! How lovely! How beautifully incoherent!
The last half of "Synecdoche, New York" is a masterwork, painful to watch and impossible to tear your eyes away from. But the first half is hateful and even more painful. It doesn't do any good to see a man brought to his wit's end by situations out of his control if the commentary is about the preservation of life through art. To me, Kaufman as God is unusually cruel.
That being said "Synecdoche, New York" is exactly what it should be, the longing of a successful piece of art, never quite sure of itself.
As an idea and a emotional meditation and a weepy Sunday afternoon, mid-life crisis movie, "Synecdoche, New York" is perfect. As anything else, it fails to deliver; but you cannot critique its attempt or its originality, just its execution.

Score: ★★½

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