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Synecdoche, New York

2008-12-11 09:46
What it's about:

Theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an artist disconnected from the world and the people he loves. His latest production (Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman) is getting rave reviews but he finds scant support from his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) who urges him to stage something honest and original for a change. When Adele leaves for Berlin to exhibit her work, taking their four-year-old daughter along, his life begins to unravel. Beset by ailments and finding solace in the arms of actress Claire (Michelle Williams) and then his assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton), Caden wins a "genius" grant to stage his greatest work – the story of his life. After building a replica of New York in a massive warehouse, he hires actors to play the people in his life as the lines between truth and fiction blur.

What we thought of it:

Trust the man who gave us a glimpse into the mind of John Malkovich and dreamed up a twin brother for himself in the autobiographical Adaptation, to go where no other filmmaker has dared in this sprawling, magical and hypnotic tale.

Like John Cusack's Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich, and Jim Carrey's Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two of Kaufman's previous think pieces, Hoffman's Caden represents all the self-doubt and disaffection that is hard to divorce from the mind who created these characters.

The unnamed (and unnamable) epic Caden tirelessly works on throughout the movie becomes an all-consuming reflection on his disappointing life, with actors re-creating the most painful moments in his failed relationships. The actor he hires to play him Sammy (Tom Noonan) confesses at his audition that he'd been following and studying Caden for the last 20 years.

Caden marries the much younger and more spirited Claire, but she and their daughter Ariel are poor substitutes for the family Caden lost. Each new realisation of his failures leads to a new scene being added to his play. It's the play that seemingly has no beginning or end. It's being continually rehearsed, re-written and adapted, but frustratingly remains static due to Caden's debilitating self-involvement.

The more he attempts to recreate his life within the context of the play, the less he lives it in the real world. He is an annoying and frustrating man, but in Hoffman's hands, Caden becomes a fascinating character study that demands your attention even when you feel the need to slap him out of his reverie.

Caden's self-promoting therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis) is on hand to give him perspective but only aggravates his self-obsession. But there are the odd visual clues throughout the movie that offers skewed but telling insight into Caden's psyche. At one point Caden's face becomes infected with pustules, which he later sees on his therapist's feet.

He also sees himself in television commercials for anti-depressants and chemotherapy treatments. These peculiar moments offer a biting commentary on the nature of the artist's mind – so consumed by its own creative impulse that the world exists, in the case of Caden, only as a canvas for him to project his every fear and delusion.

It is the ultimate in self-obsession to strive towards truth through the telling of your own mundane and uninspired life story – and Kaufman, in his directorial debut – is only too aware of that. Ironically, Kaufman succeeds in his own mission towards truth through the ungraceful telling of this story, but it takes a long time to get there.

Synecdoche, New York is one heady trip, not for everyone, and is best enjoyed when you're feeling prepared for something challenging and life-affirming.

- Shaheema Barodien

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Maverick writer-director Charlie Kaufman weaves a complex and bewildering tale about art, life and the meaning of it all in a movie that dares to be challenging.

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