Synecdoche, New York Review: Life Through a Petri Dish

May 15, 2009 by  
Filed under - Home, Film Reviews

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK: On General Release Friday 15th May

Trying to compress, define and sum up the myriad themes, subtexts and fundamental bloomin’ storyline of Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a bewildering prospect.

Overflowing with creative genius and audacious scope, Synecdoche, New York creeps sheepishly into the periphery of your imagination before exploding with increasingly mind-boggling complexity and already stands claim to Film of the Year.

The plot follows borderline hypochondriac Caden Cotard (a predictably impressive, melancholy Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he struggles through the mundanities and creative confines of everyday life. Living in upstate New York (the dyslexic minefield that is Schenectady), he’s awarded a seemingly limitless ‘genius’ grant to put on a theatre production that can justify his existence and leave an indelible, meaningful mark on the world.

His wife Adele and 2 year old child soon leave him for a life in Germany (with the parting, cheery soundbyte that fantasising about Caden’s death was the only thing actually making her happy) and his despair and listlessness gradually begin to manifest themselves in the grand production that he eventually decides to run with: a play of a play of his life. Actors play actors playing actors, and the production becomes a lesson in meta-fiction, philosophy, melancholic humour and head-scratching eccentricty.

And we haven’t even talked about the bedazzling female cast, radioactive poop, crying sex, floating zeppelins, wars or midget funeral yet.

Considering the plot comes from the brain of the quirky genius who wrote Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the only film to actually validate Nicholas Cage’s existence, Adaptation, it’s no surprise that it’s best to walk in with your expectations set to ‘stun’.

Intelligent, brutally honest and deeply personal whilst remaining universally accessible, Caden’s spiralling simulacram soon takes on a life of its own and sweeps you away for the ride.

Time (amongst other things) skips by with fantastical abandon and before you know it, Kaufman seems to be peeling back the grand illusive secrets of the human existence for everyone to understand; life, death, intransience, love, purpose, meaning – it’s all covered here.

It’s very much a ‘Magic Eye’ of cinema – heady, kaleidoscopic and overwhelming at first glance. But give it a little space to breathe and you’ll gain the perspective needed to comprehend its depth and true meaning.

And if you thought that comparison was artistically demeaning, you should come back next week for my next trick, where I’ll somehow analogise Requiem to a Dream with The Teletubbies.

Anyway, as a film, it’s magnificent. As a piece of art, it’s humbling and not a little breath-taking. At one point, Caden tells his therapist he just wants to make something “big and true and tough. You know, finally put my real self into something.”

What remains forever out of Caden’s grasp, Kaufman appears to have nailed.

Matt Risley

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