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And All the People Merely Players

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics

In “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman descends fully, firmly down the rabbit hole, lost in a dense world of complications, confusion and severe ambiguity. Whereas the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and first-time director’s better projects successfully imbue his unique, cerebral vision with a straightforward focus on matters of the heart, this one buries its humanity beneath an avalanche of high concepts. The film is original and well cast, but its insistence on being a sort of cinematic Rorschach test – open to a wide variety of interpretations and meanings – causes it to ultimately leave a rather negligible impact.

Philip Seymour Hoffman – as consummately professional and eloquently worn down as ever – stars as Caden Cotard, a suffering, grossly unhappy playwright living in Schenectady, N.Y. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) – so morose that she never changes her monotonous vocal intonations and talks openly of wishing Caden dead – abandons him and takes their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) to live with her in Berlin. At the same time, Caden juggles complicated relationships with several other women and a crippling case of hypochondria. Things get much, much stranger when he decides to use money from a MacArthur Genius Grant to stage an epic theater piece about his life.

Mr. Kaufman gleefully plunges full steam ahead into a world of paradoxes, inexplicable occurrences and collapsing time and space continuums. Replicas of locations we’ve seen onscreen turn up as sets onstage, actors play characters playing other characters (see Emily Watson’s impression of Samantha Morton) and a house burns incessantly without phasing its occupants. Self-reflexivity abounds, the complexities multiply at monumental rates and heads will surely explode trying to get a handle on it all.

Challenging an audience with a project as grandiose as this one – which reflects in its form Caden’s obsessive, drawn out pursuit of some great unknowable truth about his life – is an admirable thing to do. Mr. Kaufman, though, never gives the audience any tangible reason to care about the sad sack Caden, the disintegration of his various relationships or his grand folly. The movie functions as a stream of dense ideas that collide with each other and meld together to create a hopelessly muddled intellectual exercise that rarely provokes and never inspires.


Opens on Oct. 24 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Robert Frazen; music by John Brion; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anthony Bregman, Mr. Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Sidney Kimmel; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Caden Cotard), Samantha Morton (Hazel), Michelle Williams (Claire Keen), Catherine Keener (Adele Lack), Emily Watson (Tammy), Dianne Wiest (Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Maria), Hope Davis (Madeleine Gravis) and Tom Noonan (Sammy Barnathan).


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