Posted by: Alan | April 27, 2009

Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)



Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Writer: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson


I may be biased here. Charlie Kaufman is without a doubt my favorite writer in the history of writers. I knew I had witnessed something special when I saw Being John Malkovich way back in 1999. I knew I had seen one of the greatest movies ever when I suddenly gained respect for Nicolas Cage. And let’s not forget the reason why I called this site ‘The Spotless Minds.’ When I heard about his new film I was excited, but numerous setbacks meant I never got to watch it until now. And I was blown away.

The Premise

Here’s the thing: This film can be appreciated much more the less you know about it. So here’s the abbreviated concept: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a neurotic theatre director who is awarded a grant which enables him to basically do whatever he wants. So he decides to create a theatre piece in a large warehouse with a cast of thousands. What happens throughout would be hard to explain anyway, and I doubt I will ever fully understand it. But that’s the way I like it. Now the usual 4 category format I use for reviews really will be useless for this film, so get ready for some ramblings about life, art, and why everything we do is beautiful.

Just about every review I’ve read for this film talks about the need for multiple viewings. Now I’ve made similar claims about other movies, all the time in fact, but this is one time where I think it is absolutely true. There is no way you’ll fully understand the movie on first viewing, or second, or ever. I doubt Charlie Kaufman fully understands it. But I have always been of the opinion that no matter how smart you are, no matter how much you research or study, no matter what you may personally believe, you’ll never know everything. You can never know all the intricacies of life, and you’ll never know why we’re here or where we go. All we can know is the here and now.

So what is the movie about then? Simply put, it’s about me. It’s about you. It’s about Charlie Kaufman, it’s about Michael Bay. It’s about your mother, your father, your weird uncle Louie. It’s about all of us. It’s a celebration of life. By showing us how futile it is.

Think about where you are right now. Are you happy with your life? Are you content with where you’re currently at? The answer is, almost universally, no. No matter how much you try to convince yourself you’re happy, you are not. Nobody really is. We spend our entire lives working towards something. First it’s to complete school. Then to complete more school. Then to get a job. Maybe to marry. Have kids. Once you’ve discovered that you have completed everything you’ve wanted to, you want more. Maybe you’ll have a mid life crisis and buy a sports car or fuck a 25 year old. Maybe you’ll go on American Idol and have delusions of grandeur, then cry on national TV. At some point you’ll decide you’re too old to do anything else, and slowly accept the inevitability of your death. That’s when you feel regret. You didn’t do enough with your life. You never followed your dream(s). You married too young, too old. You wanted more kids. Less.

This probably sounds really pessimistic, but stay with me here. These things we go though, they’re inevitable. There will be slight deviations but for the most part, everyone has the same journey. The same feelings of regret, the same moments of joy. We’re all trying to create something, whether it’s a graph chart, a painting, or a full scale replica of New York City inside a warehouse. But ultimately, it will never be what we truly want. Caden continues working on his play for well over 40 years. The actors age, change roles, die. But he’s never happy with it. But at some point you have to take a step back, say, ‘That’s good enough,’ and be content in knowing you did something.

Caden claims that, “There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.” This comparison between theatre and life shares a similarity to Shakespeare’s immortal line from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This still holds truth today. In fact how many people know that line, but have never read the actual play it’s from? We’re all acting a part in the grand scheme of things, and we’ll eventually have our exit. Maybe we’ll have a curtain call, maybe we won’t. But eventually we’ll leave the stage. The point is to wow the audience while you’re on the stage.

And that’s really what I got out of this film, so far. The mundane can be beautiful. Spending your entire life looking to the future will eventually turn into missing the past. But really, past and future can never exist. There is only the present. We need to focus on enjoying the present and hating it. Life is, in the end, futile. But that’s okay. Kaufman has always written scripts that explore the depths of the human mind, and it’s always been fascinating. But they have also seemed a little too autobiographical to really affect me on a personal level. Synecdoche, New York is the first time I’ve felt truly in sync with Mr. Kaufman, and I think it’s because he himself has understood the things he is feeling, the fears, the insecurities, the joys, the anger, the hopelessness…these are all things everyone feels too. Caden is always Caden. But he’s everyone else too. And I’m happy with that.

This movie is strange. It’s disjointed, bends reality, fucks with the concept of time, and more or less confuses the shit out of you. This isn’t a ‘popcorn flick’ or a ‘summer blockbuster.’ It’s not a movie meant to entertain you. You are going to be angry at it. You’ll hate it for a while.  But you know what? I like that. This is a movie I can talk to people about, that we can have arguments about. That’s what I feel art should do: inspire discussion, inspire it farther than saying ‘how sweet the slow mo gun fight was!’ Or ‘dude how hot was Megan Fox?!?!’ (Disclaimer: I hate Megan Fox). Charlie Kaufman doesn’t have the answers to everything. But who does? I’ll leave you with this quote that may be too long to quote in it’s entirety, but it’s basically how I feel about, well, everything.

“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I’m so angry and the truth is I’m so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.”

– Alan



  1. Alright. Alright. So I need to see this movie a second time. I will. Maybe then I may have something different to say but here are some thoughts at the moment.

    I like this film. It is good. Just want to lay that down. It’s a rarity to see a film that deals so earnestly with the most universal human characteristic (We are all going to die). And shame on the critics who bashed this film because they couldn’t understand it. I didn’t understand it. But it’s not the engraved duty of a film to hand you it’s meaning.

    That said Alan, I think you’re too forgiving of films that are meant to frustrate you or play with your expectations. Is this really a perfect movie in your book?

    My nagging problem upon seeing this movie was the necessity for Kaufman to push away from anything someone (anyone!) might expect. There is often a moment in his earlier work where at some point in the story everything snaps into place and things seem to make (weird) sense. I’m glad he resisted that with this film, but at the same time I feel he went to such lengths to be un-gratifying that ultimately he never gave me a way in to the story. That I wanted to feel something, but couldn’t.

    So when the end came I was left a bit…empty. I wanted to think about what it meant, but was unable to climb up and see over the strange wall Kaufman built around everything in this curious movie. So I stopped climbing.

    Though I must say I loved Samantha Morton in this movie and her perpetually burning house.

    So what? Am I the ‘Megan Fox’ dude because I had problems with it? Bring it.

    A pleasure to read as always, sir.

  2. It’s natural to have problems with any film, especially one like this. I don’t think it was a perfect movie. I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect movie. The reason I rated it 20/20 is because the way I perceive movies is on a completely subjective, emotional level.

    If I sat down and analyzed this film I’m sure I could find some ‘faults’ as it were, but that’s not the purpose of Synecdoche, New York. It’s to make you FEEL. And in that regard it succeeded 100%. The fact that critics and people alike are so ‘love it or hate it’ on this movie is a success as well, in my opinion.

    I think a problem people have is that they are trying to make it ‘make sense,’ like you said, instead of just letting it be. The fact that it DOESN’T make sense is what makes this film, because ultimately life doesn’t make sense.

    Am I giving Mr. Kaufman too much credit? Perhaps. But he has spent over 10 years garnering my respect, so I feel credit is due. I’m not saying he is a genius. I’m saying he is an honest and truthful filmmaker. And that’s what I like to see.


    This has all the words I wanted to say. As I said before, I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it either.

    • I have trouble taking this ‘reviewer’ seriously with multiple spelling errors. And in the first few paragraphs, taking a shot at Hoffman (“Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one more shlubby, unappetizing performance,”) makes me think he has something against some of the people involved in the film.

      By the time it sinks in that the fragmented melodramatic sketches are to be taken at face value, Synecdoche, New York has gotten too knotted up in its own contrivances to get a good grip on anybody’s heartstrings

      Well that’s not true at all, it made me sob both times I’ve watched it.

      Kaufman is so preoccupied with producing profundity that he loses sight of any truthful human dimension.

      I’m pretty sure this reviewer just doesn’t ‘get it.’ I hate saying that but in this case I’d say it’s true. The reviewer can’t look past the conventions of the film to grasp the heart of it. Which is the case for a lot of people I think.

      Anyway, the movie is quickly becoming one of my favorites of all time, so I feel the need to defend it, even if I’m not the right person to do so.

      • No worries. I assure you, my intent to bring in this reviewer wasn’t meant to make you feel like your own review was incorrect, but to simply mix things up with some contrary opinions.

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