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Synecdoche a Metaphorical Must-See

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, October 30, 2008

Try and name a Hollywood screenwriter. Just one.It seems an oxymoron to refer to anyone who has written a screenplay without doubling as a director as famous. Screenwriters simply write the stories and show up in the credits. Don’t tell that to Charlie Kaufman, though.

To say that Kaufman transcends Hollywood is an understatement. He is a paradox of a writer whose work is almost indescribable and incomprehensible at times, yet always engrossing. His plots are otherworldly. His dialogue is downright foreign. Each scene that he constructs operates in a dreamlike fashion, allowing the audience to seamlessly surrender any semblance of what they’re accustomed to seeing when at the movies.

He is Charlie Kaufman, the lone star writer, and as of last Friday, he is now Charlie Kaufman, the writer/director.It is only fitting that the Academy Award winning writer behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and such far out there films as “Being John Malkovic” and “Adaptation” would aim for the stars in his directorial debut. So what did Kaufman conjure up this time?

Well, he made “Synecdoche, New York”, a two-hour journey into the confines of life, death, love, art, and the universal struggle to be authentic in an inauthentic world.

Everything is ever shifting in Kaufman’s world. Duplicate characters roam through unfamiliar environments in shifting time frames, creating a jigsaw puzzle of a movie that those willing to follow will find tantalizing but inevitably rewarding. Yes, to say it bluntly, it’s a head-trip, but the kind that is brilliant both for its journey and its destination.

The story centers on Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a depressed theater director who is miserably married to Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). The couple live in a seemingly broken home with their daughter, Olivia. When the film opens, Caden is directing Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” only with young actors (including Michelle Williams) rather than middle-aged ones.

Although the curtains eventually go down on the play, it is Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and its theme of dreams arising out of reality, that goes on to dictate the rest of the film.After his wife leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, Caden’s health begins to deteriorate. Or so he thinks. A short time later he receives a McArthur grant, which he uses to work on a theater production of epic proportion. Inside a massive warehouse he reconstructs a life-size replica of New York City and auditions thousands of actors.

From there, fiction and non-fiction blend into an almost indecipherable mix, as Kaufman continues to further mine the many themes of the film.

In the end, Caden’s grand theater piece illuminates the true silver lining of this film, that we are all authentic and important, because in life, no one is an extra, because we are all lead roles in our own stories.

“Synecdoche, New York” is so intricate and meaningful on so many levels that it begs to be watched over and over again. One can’t wait to see it again, not to try to better understand it, but to once again immerse oneself in Kaufman’s metaphorical theater that so interestingly and beautifully attempts to explore life from every which way. It has enough creativity to fill 10 movies and enough ambition to fill another 20.

Of course, Kaufman aims so high that the only way he could have truly succeeded is if “Synecdoche, New York” were the greatest film of this century. Instead, it’s just a great film, and one that resonates long after the credits roll.