Synedoche, New York (2008), Dir. Charlie Kaufman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, Michelle Williams as Claire and Tom Noonan as Sammy contemplate art as life.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, Michelle Williams as Claire and Tom Noonan as Sammy contemplate art as life.

Rating: 9/10

It’s business as usaul in the larger than life surreal world of Kaufman in this, his directorial debut. The film charts the life of theatre director Caden Cotard as his life takes a plunge for the worse, starting with increasing alienation in his marriage to his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) who believes the work he does staging old plays is not personal or meaningful.

Then an accident, where he knocks his head triggers a series of increasingly bad health problems. After his wife leaves him taking his daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein and Robin Weigert as the older Olive) and with lesbian lover Maria (it is only ever implied but obvious) (Jenifer Jason Leigh, an actress I increasingly like), he decides that he has to do something personal to his life and decides to do a large-scale theatre project tracing all the people in his life including him that rehearses with no real end in sight until Caden himself dies.

The result of this is that reality and fiction quickly merge form a circle in which life imitates art and art, you guessed it, art imitates life. And the film begins to play out real scenes in Caden’s life and then immediatedly shows it’s theatrical equivalent. Caden finds himself in increasingly strange situations, sleeping with Tammy (Emily Watson) who plays the real love of his life Hazel (Samantha Morton) and finding himself being followed even into the toilet by his double Sammy (Tom Noonan) who gets too close to his real life when he starts going out with Hazel.

There are many tragi-comic moments as well as surreally funny moments in the film. Such as when Hazel is sold a house that is constantly burning and Hazel asks if there’ s not a risk of death and the estate agant informs her it’s the best way to go.  Or when because Caden can no longer produce tears he has to produced manafactured tears in order to cry at the distance that’s now between him and his daughter Olive. When he goes to seek her out in Berlin and discovers an abandoned present he gave her. Or when Tammy berates Caden for crying before sex again. Or when his therapist Madeleine (Hope Davis in a great satirisation of the great popularity of therapy and self-help books in the Western world) acts out what Caden is reading in the self-help book she sold him, offering him “a flower” and when Caden rejects it the words disappear off the page as if he can no longer be helped. 

Comedy also comes from the slippages of language in the film, where people constantly misunderstand each other.  And the satirisation of things like the gimmickry of modern art (Adele’s paintings have to be viewed under a magnifying glass), the popularity of self-help/therapy culture (in the character of Madeleine who charges $40 for her books and has a nonchalent attitude to the crisis Caden and Adele’s marriage is undergoing).

But at it’ s heart it is a very serious film about the desperate need people have to connect and fill their life with meaning and purpose to the point where anything they do will never be enough.

Hoffman as usual gives as usual a moving and funny performance as a man on the edge, while there are great peformances also from Michelle Williams as Caden’s second wife, a needy actress who constantly asks what her motivation is, and Samantha Morton and Emily Watson as generous Hazel and cynical Tammy are at their usual best (you realise how alike they look too). While Hope Davis is brilliant as the manipulative and kooky Madeliene.

The film may get a little too aburd and extra-meta in the end but it certainly gives you food for thought and leave sa big impression while many other films offer only insubstantial spectacle and derivaritive unoriginal stories.

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1 Comment

  1. i first saw Michelle Wiliams as an extra on the movie Species and i like her already at her very young age ”


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