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Kaufman's Earlier Flair Missing from Synecdoche, New York

  • Stephen McGarvey Executive Editor
  • Updated Mar 04, 2009
Kaufman's Earlier Flair Missing from <i>Synecdoche, New York</i>

DVD Release Date:  March 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  November 21, 2008 (wide)
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  R (for language, nudity and some sexual content)
Cast:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Tom Noonan
Director: Charlie Kaufman

“Self-indulgent” is a word film critics throw around to the point of cliché. Yet for a long time after viewing Synecdoche, New York that’s really the only descriptor I could think of to sum it up. Several days later, I’m still of that mindset on this latest work from critically acclaimed writer/director Charlie Kaufman. As one of the most critically anticipated films of the year, it unfortunately becomes one of the most disappointing.

Over the last 10 years or so, Kaufman has won well-deserved praise as an innovative screenwriter for his films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Poignant and innovative, these movies (especially Eternal Sunshine, in my opinion) gave us insightful looks into human nature without sacrificing the story. Each one is artistic and unusual, but not in a way that feels incomprehensible. Now for the first time directing his own screenplay, Kaufman’s Synecdoche is missing the resonance of his early work.

Synecdoche, New York is the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a neurotic theatrical director from Schenectady, New York. In addition to sounding similar to Schenectady, a synecdoche is a figure of speech where a more inclusive term is used to describe a less inclusive term (or vice versa). For example: if you were to refer to police officers as “the law,” that is a synecdoche. Here it serves as a reference of sorts to Caden’s life work, a play about his own life.

But unfortunately Caden’s life really has little interest on which to base a play. Caden is a “starving artist” with several lifetimes’ worth of bad relationships. His wife (Catherine Keener), also an artist, leaves him to follow her career in Europe and takes with her their young daughter. Perpetually obsessed with death and his own medical problems, morose Caden wins a grant for his work and proceeds to develop a play about his life story on an incomprehensible scale. He buys a warehouse, builds a miniature city inside it and hires hundreds of actors to literally create a theatrical production of every single moment of his life. The creation of this show becomes an exercise in a reproduction of the mundane.

There is some great dry wit in the beginning of the film as Caden deals with doctors and those indifferent to his conditions.  Unfortunately, enduring these recurring maladies becomes tedious, and the movie overly taxes the audience’s patience. We never really learn if Caden’s health problems are real or psychosomatic. And as much as events out of his control conspire against him, damaging his personal life, much of the trauma he endures is self-inflicted. The film unspools over many years’ time while we watch his attempts at love end badly and his never-complete production grow to an incomprehensible size. Like Caden’s play, the movie drags along much longer than necessary, making Caden an increasingly unsympathetic character as time marches on.

Little oddities here, Kaufman’s stock in trade, divert from the story causing viewers to get hung up on the weirdness rather than the issues at play. Caden’s lifelong “on-again-off-again” love interest Hazel (Samantha Morton) purchases a house that’s literally on fire, but never burns up. Caden has a stalker (Tom Noonan ) throughout the first part of the film who at first seem to be imagined, then turns out to be real. But the audience really never knows why someone as innocuous as Caden would garner such a devotee. This sort of wackiness works in a film like Being John Malkovich where the entire premise is fantastic. But these distractions in an otherwise normal story and setting seem out of place.

So when we get to the final act, the film hasn’t really earned the right to throw around the wisdom it portends. Caden openly marvels over his profound conclusions his life in pursuit of art has produced. Statements like, “there are no extras in life, we are all the lead in our own story” and “no one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own” are thought-provoking ideas to consider. But in the mish-mash of this film these ideas fall flat.

Top it off with a bizarre conclusion and you have a movie that film students will spend years dissecting. Synecdoche, New York doesn’t give us much of the thoughtful consideration we see in some of Kaufman’s earlier work. Instead we see a lot of great actors give a lot of forgettable performances; we see a lackluster film plod through emotional issues with seeming indifference.

For Christians, self examination is part of everyday life as we endeavor to follow the tenants of our faith. Caden’s journey of self-examination leaves us with very little encouragement or insight.


  • Violence:  Caden is hit in the head with an exploding pipe resulting in blood loss and a close-up of him getting stitches. He is also shown having a seizure and on the receiving end of several medical procedures (many are cringe-worthy). Suicide is discussed and shown in the film. Caden physically attacks a woman he believes is keeping his daughter from him. The aftermath of a murder scene is shown containing a good deal of blood.
  • Language/Profanity:  A great deal of vulgar and profane language. A moderate amount of frank sexual discussion. Discussion about all manner of bodily functions.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Hazel tries to seduce the married Caden. Some of the artwork (paintings) in the film portrays nudes. There are several sex scenes in the film, most of which don’t include explicit nudity. In one scene a women is shown undressing and topless before getting into bed with Caden. Caden sees a woman he believes is his daughter dance nude in a European peep show. Caden imagines his therapist trying to seduce him. Claire is shown once in a see-through negligee.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Casual smoking and drinking throughout the film. Hazel offers Caden marijuana at one point. He declines and returns home to find his wife and her friend high.