Finding meaning (or lack thereof) in life and Kaufman’s brilliant SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.


[Synecdoche, New York trailer here.]

Having seen Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut only the once, I am conscious more than ever that I can’t really convey the complex experience of seeing a film in the space of a review. Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s most complex, cerebral and self-reflexive work yet. The film is dense with visual puns, wordplay, symbolism, shifting timeframes, doppelgangers and leitmotifs. But it is also profoundly moving in an immediate, emotional sense and certainly a rewarding experience. So I will be consciously reductive in this review, hopefully saying enough to convince you to see the film, figure out its puzzles for yourself and find something worthwhile in Kaufman’s vision that speaks to you.

The narrative is about playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who in the film’s early scenes is staging a production of ‘Death of a Salesman’ but with a youthful cast playing the old characters (an effect that is echoed as Hoffman plays himself as an old man towards the end of the film). He is depressed, suffering from physical ailments and alienated from his wife (Catherine Keener). One of his few enjoyable interactions is with the eager woman who works the box office (Samantha Morton). After his wife leaves him for Berlin to become a celebrated painter, Caden receives the MacArthur genius grant which gives him all the resources he could want to create his masterpiece. Disappointed with his life up to that point, Caden endeavours to create a theater production of utmost realism and truth, a construction of his own life to its fullest. The development of the production becomes increasingly unwieldy as he casts someone to play himself directing the play and his life apart from the production becomes more and more complex.

The unifying theme of the film is Caden’s perception of his own inadequacy. Throughout the film he is plagued by a sense of a lack, both externally and internally: Doctors remind him of his perpetually decaying body, self help books tease him with the hope of self-realisation, the romantic ideal lies forever out of reach and he is anxious that his professional life is not being played out to its full potential. These are anxieties common to almost everyone and we have expectations thrust upon us from all directions. For example, pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman once decried how ‘Coldplay manufactures fake love as frenetically as the Ford fucking Motor Company manufactures Mustangs’ and how the idea of fake love that persists in popular culture is damaging to relationships because it presents a promise that can never be realised. Caden, obsessed with his own mortality is looking for some transcendent meaning in his life and he believes that his art will provide that.

The tragedy of Synecdoche, New York lies in the futility of Caden’s endeavour. Complete realism in art is impossible. Caden is oblivious to the fact that his play, no matter how detailed and complex, will always be less than reality. Kaufman on the other hand is well aware of the limitations of the film and decides to forego realism altogether. Synecdoche, New York is surrealist in tone, even moreso than Being John Malkovich. Months slip past in the course of a scene. Characters inexplicably change accents. Bizarre events occur without explanation such as a diary that is updated regularly even though the writer lives overseas or the house of Caden’s romantic interest which is perpetually on fire. Yet Kaufman’s surreal and postmodern games are always grounded by an idea with an emotional core.

That is ultimately the success of Kaufman’s cinema: He doesn’t offer the conventional satisfaction of Hollywood realism but he does offer emotional sincerity. There’s a scene in the film where a woman gets her heart broken by a man. We are aware that her heartache is a mere construction, a synecdoche of what heartache is like in real life, but the idea of her heartache is devastatingly affecting nevertheless. I realise I’ve made the film sound depressing and it’s certainly filled with sadness and disappointment. But it’s ultimately a life-affirming film. It’s message is that we won’t transcend our decaying bodies, won’t find ultimate fulfilment in our profession or parenthood or romance, but we may give a little love to the world and that might not be a whole lot but it’s enough.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Kaufman’s antidote to fake love.

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

This showed recently at Cinematheque and it’s a remarkable film. Though certainly not sharing the surrealist/postmodern tendencies of Kaufman, there is certainly a crossover with Synecdoche, New York thematically in that both films feature artists struggling with their latest work (in Some Came Running, Sinatra plays a writer) and find themselves stuck through their belief in transcendent love (Sinatra falls in love with an English teacher with an insightful appreciation of his writing but who has a moral objection to its content in practice).



Filed under Reviews

9 responses to “Finding meaning (or lack thereof) in life and Kaufman’s brilliant SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.

  1. Jake Wilson

    Good review. I love Some Came Running, so I’ll have to think about your comparison. There’s a bit of Shirley Maclaine in Samantha Morton, maybe?

  2. I thought the surreal elements worked well, like the perpetually burning house. In a feature film, has anyone other than Buñuel used surrealism to this degree? I’ve been watching quite a bit of Buñuel recently, so this really resonated.

    I agree that it’s a good review, but the film as a whole doesn’t quite succeed for me. It starts off well, very cleverly, but becomes stuck in the second half. It just keeps going and I wanted it to end. It would have had more impact with 20-30 minutes trimmed off.

    • Brad

      There’s a lot of great directors who work with surrealism. In American film you have Cronenberg and Lynch. I think I might have mentioned Jan Svankmajer in an earlier post. Nagisa Oshima could possibly be included. Gondry’s ‘Science of Sleep’ perhaps.

      • Brad

        Also, it’s arguable as to whether Kaufman’s work is really surrealist. It’s certainly absurd, but I also find his work to be quite moral in nature – which is something the Surrealist movement is certainly uninterested in.

  3. Brad, it may or may not be Surrealist, but I don’t think there’s any question that it’s surrealist. I’m not talking dogma, just basic conceptual stuff. Dali was a Catholic, Buñuel was an atheist but they were both surrealists.

    You mention Lynch who names Buñuel’s Un chien andalou as his favourite film. Ruiz is another who uses surrealism in his work. But I can’t think of any films by anyone who has used surrealism as overtly as Kaufman in this one.

    • Brad

      Sorry for the semantic debate. But I do try for a kind of irreverant academic tone so here goes:

      I think Kaufman’s work has more in common with the Theatre of the Absurd than surrealism. Though there are common elements to the two styles, they are conceptually different. When we describe something as surreal it connotes a mixture of repulsion and seduction, the familiar made unfamiliar, a view of the world where dreams and reality are the same, where the unconscious spills open unencumbered by logic or morals.

      Kaufman’s work isn’t like that. Sure there are weird things that happen in his films but a Kaufman film is more like a puzzle that needs to be put together than a chaotic dreamscape. The surreal by definition doesn’t make sense. Kaufman’s films by comparison offer a coherent reading which might require some semiotic acrobatics but they still make sense.

      I hope that made some kind of sense!

  4. i really loved the foreboding that plays like discordant note throughout the first 20 minutes. It feels like a very slow (and un-bruckheimer) apocalypse is inevitably approaching. I was sad to see this paranoia inducing disappear into exploration of time and being. But once I got over that I enjoyed the Heideggerian Hyperreality of it all.

  5. Dave Mack

    Just finished reading Philip K Dick’s UBIK, Kaufman totally channels the energy and headspace of Dick.

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