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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Synecdoche, New York (2008)


Eventually, we all get old and die. Tell me, what else is new?

After New York theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hits it big with his “version” of Death of a Salesman, the question on everybody’s mind is: What’s next? However, he’s the only one who doesn’t have that question anywhere near his mind at the moment, mainly because he’s got a lot of crap going on that he can’t escape from. His artist wife (Catherine Keener) just left to Berlin with his 4-year-old daughter; his box-office worker Hazel (Samantha Morton) is flirting up a storm with him; he just got hit in the head by a pipe and found out that it may be a deadly sign of things to come (meaning death); and he just received a grant to make his next big play inside of an area the size of a football stadium. Caden’s brain is so wracked and sad, however, that he does eventually come up with an idea that may take some by surprise, but makes total sense when you take his whole life into perspective: Caden plans on making the play about his whole life, including the most eventful moments, and all of the people he meets and greets. Self-indulgent? You bet your ass it is!

Going into this movie and knowing that Charlie Kaufman is not only just writing this movie, but directing it as well, should already get you in the right frame-of-mind, and make you expect the unexpected, even if the unexpected is totally, and utterly random and pretentious. But such is the case with Kaufman, who’s the type of writer whose style should not work at all, but somehow does, mainly because he’s had such talented directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry being able to pick up the pieces and frame them in a somewhat comprehensible way, where not only do the heavy-set ideas hit our brains at maximum-speed, but the story itself just works, regardless of if we get it or not. Those two are just obvious examples, as I’m sure they are many more directors out there who “get” enough of what Kaufman does with his writing, and what he’s trying to say. However, when it’s just him running the show, and no outside interference or inspiration, then things get very, very shaky as a result.

Aside from PSH, let's see which one ends up turning out to look like this once they got older.

Aside from PSH, let’s see which one ends up turning out to look like this once they got older.

Then again though, like I said before: It’s Charlie Kaufman, and you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. So that means that there’s no need to fear, this won’t be one of those reviews where I get on the movie’s case for being non-stop pretentious, self-indulgent and preachy, because I expect that from him. Instead, it’s going to be more of a review on how easy Kaufman’s writing seems to be. See, the movie is less about a guy making a play of his life, as much as it’s more about how life itself is a play, and we are all just characters within it, going about our emotions, our action, and our decisions in a way that were pretty much spoon-fed to us from birth; they’re just starting to show now. And with that idea in mind, I have to give Kaufman plenty of credit. Not only can the dude look at the human-existence, but the reason we have to live, with a sour-puss attitude and grin on his face, but he can also show us that life is pretty damn sad, no matter how times we try to avoid that sadness with the simple things in life.

Very depressing, I know, but there’s just something about Kaufman’s writing that makes it so wonderful and honest that you can’t help but be entranced, nor not be interested in hearing what he has to say. You just listen, watch and learn gracefully, as if you’re watching a fellow human-life happen right in front of your own, very eyes. Which, in a way, you pretty much, and that’s where I hit my problems with this movie and where it was trying to get at.

The problem with this movie isn’t that it’s depressing or it makes you look at your own life, as well as the other’s around you, with a dour-look, but how it just seems to only reach for that idea as a point to be made. We always know where Kaufman’s getting at with this material; he feels that life is a sad, miserable experience that we live through, but we live through it nonetheless, so why harp over the meaningless things like break-ups, divorces, and lost-loves, just live life! And yes, it is very sad and cynical in it’s own way, but Kaufman never seems to be bringing anything much else to it other than that. There are shiny and bright rays of hope and happiness to be found somewhere in the finer-lines of this story, but anytime they get a chance to pop-up and show themselves, Kaufman comes right back down with his swiping-hand of negativity, showing us that we shouldn’t be happy with what we see, we should cry, pout and kick cans all day because of it. Maybe he’s not that much of a dick about it, but he comes pretty close at times, and it just shows you why this is the type of writer that can do some major business when he has a helping-hand with the direction; but when it comes to his own shot at glory, and giving it his all, he sort of stutters into his way of balancing out the happy, as well as the sad times in life.

Surely there’s plenty of both elements in everybody’s life, but it sure as hell isn’t always sad, Charlie. Get a grip, man!

"Why yes, I am reading "Thoughts on the Afterlife and Other Musings about Everything That Has to Do With It." Have you heard of it before?"

“Why yes, I am reading “Thoughts on the Afterlife and Other Musings about Everything That Has to Do With It.” Have you heard of it before?”

And while it’s disappointing that things didn’t turn out better for Kaufman’s direction, it’s even more disappointing to see the awesome cast he was working with here, and how little most of them, minus the few exceptions, are given. One of those said few exceptions, Philip Seymour Hoffman as our main, mid-life crisis man for the next 2 hours: Caden Cotad. Hoffman is great at playing these sad-sack, miserable characters that don’t care much about the life they live, nor the little things that make it worth living, but he feels like he’s channeling the same emotions every once and a little while. He seems never crack a smile, no matter what the occasion may bring. However, he seems to be able to lure every women he meets into bed with him, make her the happiest gal alive, show her her own faults, make her sad, push her away, lose her, and then never see her again. That’s a non-stop cycle that continues to revolve around every so often, and it got as annoying to watch, as much as it did to see Hoffman put on the same saddened, depressed-look on his mug. It works when the humor within Kaufman’s script comes to show, but not when we’re supposed to care for this guy, as well as the fellow women he falls in love with.

Many of which, may I add, are played by extremely talented, and great actresses, who are given material that could have easily benefited them more, had Kaufman himself seemed to actually give a crap about them, or life. Catherine Keener does her usual, “I’m old and artsy, but I’m also bored and impulsive, therefore, I’m a bitch”-act, and does it well; Samantha Morton is a bit of a sweetie-pie as one of Cadence’s first loves, one who lives in a burning house, that constantly burns throughout the whole movie (whatever sort of metaphor that’s supposed to be, I still can’t wrack my brain around); Michelle Williams acts like a bit of a bitch as well, but shows some compassion for the way she feels towards Cadence and their relationship that isn’t so present with the other gals in this flick; and Emily Watson has moments of fun and spirit, but doesn’t get much more time to really allow for her character to breathe or shed any meaning as to why she’s even shown. The only one who really seems to be livening up this material is Hope Davis, as Caden’s therapist who shows up from time-to-time, does something weird or goofy, tells him to read her expendable, self-help books and leaves him on his way, hitting all of the right tones you need from an odd, Charlie Kaufman movie. Problem is, she isn’t in it enough and doesn’t get the chance to really let loose on material that could have easily used it from her, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and even Dianne Wiest. Seriously, how do you misuse Dianne Wiest!!?!? She’s so precious!

Consensus: The sad points of our weak, pathetic lives that Kaufman obviously makes in Synecdoche, New York don’t make the movie too depressing to get-through, they just don’t add much flavor or energy to a flick that could have really benefited from some, had it had the director to really make it pop-off the screen, and into our minds and laps to chew on for a long, long time.

7 / 10 = Rental!!

Public transportation would make anybody depressed.

Public transportation would make anybody depressed.

Photo’s Credit to: Thecia.Com.Au

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13 responses to “Synecdoche, New York (2008)

  1. Tom August 4, 2014 at 3:38 am

    I’ve never heard of Synechdoche (the movie, anyway) at all before. Very interesting read, and yeah I think I’ll have to check it out if Charlie Kaufman’s responsible. He did Eternal Sunshine, if I’m not mistaken. . .

  2. Wendell August 4, 2014 at 4:00 am

    Good review, Dan. I love PSH, and thought he was great here, but I still didn’t enjoy this one. It was just way too convoluted for its own good. The writer/director just kept throwing stuff at the screen he thought was deep and it never really came together. The movie he made is as self indulgent as his protagonist.

  3. Paul Laight. Writer. Filmmaker. Semi-Amateur Comedian. Wageslave August 4, 2014 at 7:46 am

    One of the most beautifully sad films I have ever seen. Wonderful ideas and humanity. A true work of film art.

  4. reviewedbymarkleonard August 4, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Wendell has no clue what he is talking about, Dan, and I couldn’t give this film anything less than a 10. Such a precise and exacting mature adult film, but there’s always one yo-yo to call it convoluted. “Synecdoche, New York” is a masterpiece. ML

    • Wendell August 4, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Is it too much to ask that you disagree with me respectfully rather than resort to calling me a yo yo because I didn’t care for it? It’s not like I’m even close to being the only person in the world who doesn’t think this is a masterpiece. Thanks.

      • reviewedbymarkleonard August 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

        Ahh, c’mon…you’re a big boy right? You can handle it. Honestly, yo-yo may not have been fair, but you got me especially cranky with the line “kept throwing stuff at the screen he thought was deep”. That’s simply infuriating because the film IS so deep and well thought out. Also, it’s tedious to try and inform me that not everyone finds this to be a masterpiece. That would be the case with ANY film. However, the cinema enthusiasts and critics that I respect the most, indeed consider it excellent. ML

      • Wendell August 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        My point wih the line in question isn’t that the movie isn’t deep or well thought, but more that he over thought it. For me, lots of things he put in served to muddy the picture rather than work ad the great metaphors he intended them to be. Like a lot of writers directing their own material he didn’t know what to leave out. I think this would’ve benefitted from being filtered through another director who couldn’t possibly have the same connection to it as he does. It worked wonders for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and would’ve worked great here, too. At least, that’s my take on it.

  5. davecrewe August 4, 2014 at 11:37 am

    I can’t agree with you, I’m afraid! Practically flawless, in my opinion.

  6. MIchael Raine August 4, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    I need to get around to this one. Wonderfully written review however my friend!

  7. Marshall August 4, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    I haven’t seen this in a while, but I remember feeling like it really needed some oversight – like Malick often needs on his movies. I don’t doubt that Kaufman is a visionary, but not all visionaries see 20/20 at all times…

  8. ckckred August 4, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    Nice review, though I disagree. It’s a hard film to digest, but I think Synecdoche is a pretty powerful and emotional picture, maybe overwhelming, but a masterpiece in my eyes.

  9. Pingback: Synecdoche, New York (2008) | Tinseltown Times

  10. Rachel August 5, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    Great write up Dan! I think Kaufman had a lot of interesting ideas in this film, but it didn’t work as a whole for me.

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