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Synecdoche, New York

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Synecdoche, New York
Released on Friday, May 15 2009

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Screenwriters: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Running time: 124 mins
Certificate: 15

If you thought being inside John Malkovich's head was a trip, then you're in danger of total sensory overload watching Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich and other superb existential comedies (Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine), makes his directorial debut with the story of a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who aims to stage a play that will define not only his life but everyone else's too. In typically self-referential style, Kaufman attempts the same feat behind the camera and fails, albeit with great boldness and panache.

When we meet the middle-aged Caden Cotard (Hoffman) he feels the burden of not having achieved something truly great and has a palpable sense of time running out. He obsesses over every minor ailment, the sort of hypochondriac who gives himself a headache and assumes it's a brain tumour. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is equally self-obsessed but more successful as an artist, so they impose different worldviews on their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). It's erosive for the marriage, but Caden's hard realism makes for some very funny scenes early on, like being berated by Adele for making Olive cry with a short lesson on blood circulation.

Hoffman does a skilful balancing act, nailing the deadpan delivery without coming across as unfeeling. His sadness is clear when Adele whisks Olive away to Berlin for an exhibition of her work and doesn't return. He takes solace in box office girl Hazel (an impish Samantha Morton) who, unlike Caden, accepts mortality with open arms. One of Kaufman's more surreal flourishes sees her purchase a burning house, aware that it will one day kill her. No wonder that Caden won't commit to her, instead marrying an amenable young actress (Michelle Williams). Still, Hazel remains a fixture, helping him to stage that all-important play initially based on his life and which over the years expands to become an alternate reality inside a giant New York warehouse.

Caden uses the play to work through his own 'issues', providing some comical moments between him, his stalker-turned-alter ego (a creepy Tom Noonan) and Claire when she expresses concerns about their relationship. Williams is excellent in that role, evolving to reflect the toxicity of Caden's obsession as he sinks deeper into that fabricated warehouse world. It is brilliantly photographed by Frederick Elmes with a curiously outside-inside lighting which makes it claustrophobic despite the scale. The problem is that as Caden becomes more immersed in the play, Kaufman becomes bogged down as well. He loses his sense of humour in dealing with the inherent absurdity of life and succumbs to a lot of navel-gazing instead.

What comedy there is in the second half becomes repetitious. At one stage Dianne Wiest takes on the role of the actor playing Caden, the fact that she is the wrong sex being a half-hearted twist on a joke that is already played out. Later, Hoffman wanders lonely through the streets of his grand stage questioning the point of it all, desperate for a meaningful connection. The tragedy of his self-obsession finally dawns on him, but by this time it is tough to sympathise. For too long Caden (and Kaufman) are raising big issues and only grasping at the edges, which makes the film frustrating to watch. The title itself may be confusing; Synecdoche is derived from a Greek word to describe the way a part of something comments on the whole. But whilst Kaufman (like his alter ego) should be admired for trying to tackle the big Everything, in the end, this film speaks loudest about the angst of only one man.


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