Synecdoche, New York (2008): Charlie Kaufman’s Directing Debut, Starring Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest

It was only a matter of time before Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), makes his directorial debut. Synecdoche, New York attests to his bold imagination and courage to tackle complex existential issues, such as life and death, love and art, personal creativity and devastating decay.

Arguably the most ambitious, multi-layered, and serious of his scripts, the film likely will divide critics, and I’m not sure that even Kaufman’s hardcore fans will embrace it. At the moment, “Synecdoche, New York,” which received its world premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest in competition, has no American distributor, though an entrepreneurial company should take a risk on this modestly-budgeted (about $25 million) movie and release it in the arthouse circuit.

Though he has been writing for two decades, Kaufman, now 50, has never displayed immature or juvenile sensibility, as is the norm with most young American scribes. From his first produced scenario, “Being John Malkovich,” in 1999, which was directed by Spike Jonze, Kaufman has established himself as an eccentric, idiosyncratic talent that refuses to play by the rules of mainstream Hollywood or independent cinemaSundance style

Like all of his work, “Synecdoche” is bizarre post-modern, fractured, self-conscious, and self-reflexive feature, demonstrating Kaufman’s commitment to meta-narrative and personal expression of the highest order at a price, as the text will be perceived by some as both confusing and incoherent. That the protag of “Synecdoche” is an artist, a theater director struggling with his demons, makes the film all the more personal.

Having watched all of Kaufman’s scripted films, I think it’s pointless to posit in work the concepts of art versus life, or to ask whether life imitates art, or art imitates life. In Kaufman’s singular world, art is life and life is art; there’s no difference between the two realms, which both contradict and complement each other. What are possibly new elements in “Synecdoche” are the largely grave tone and the graphic detail of physical disabilities, showing bodily fluids, bleeding, decay, and intimations of death.

Densely rich in textual and subtextual ways, the saga centers on a stage director named Caden Cotard (splendidly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who undergoes a major crisis, fighting a debilitating disease as well as the departure of his moody wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener, who also appeared in Kaufman’s first-scripted feature, “Being John Malkovich”).

Caden, who directs a regional theatrical troupe, and Adele, a temperamental painter, live a rather ordinary life in Schenectady in Upstate New York. The film’s title and story’s locale have deliberately the same ring–it’s hard to think of another American filmmaker who gives his characters more original and yet obscure names.

When the story begins, a disappointed Adele takes their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) to Berlin, where she is having an art exhibit. The German city later becomes the only real locale Caden visits outside New York.

We quickly learn that Caden has been suffering from physical and emotional problems, prominent among which is the awareness that, being forced to direct other writers’ plays, he lacks genuine personal expression. (It’s a reversal of the position that Kaufman himself has occupied, having written screenplays for two directors, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry).

The ensuing saga, just like Fellini’s autobiographical dream-like “81/2,” is devoted to Caden and the women in his life, who form a cohort of eccentrics in their own right. If you were asked to put in writing the half a dozen brilliant actresses (not movie stars) who work in American film today, you could not have come with a more illustrious list than Kaufman’s ensemble, which includes, in addition to Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, all accomplished thesps with impressive resumes–and Oscar nominations or awards–to their credit.

Take Morton, for instance, looking different than the usual due to her red hair and make-up, who plays Caden’s co-worker Hazel. The most eccentric of the bunch, Hazel is a woman who buys and then continues to live in a smoky house that’s burning!

The time-shifting, multi-layered tale begins at present before jumping ahead to 2009, to find Caden the winner of the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant (director John Sayles had won one), the high-paying prize affords him to undertake the most grandiose theatrical project of his career to date, one in which the thespians act and reenact life according to Caden–as he subjectively perceives it. Determined to succeed against all odds, Caden takes over a vast building in which he stages an ongoing drama with enormous cast that both matches and replaces what’s happening in his “real” life (as if there is such a thing).

Caden casts a strange actor named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who’s tall and slender, to play himself, and the lovely Brit actress Tammy (Emily Watson), who bears strong physical resemblance to Hazel, to play the latter, his box-office clerk. With mental and emotional lines crossed ad crisscrossed, this group becomes one of the most intriguing quartets of protags to be seen in any American movie, including Kaufman’s. The characters age and transform themselves, as Caden, determined to go to the essence of “the brutal truth” (whatever that means) tries but fails to be in control of the evolving drama.

Caden hires the beautiful actress Claire to play his wife and then marries her in real life, when Hazel falls for a more handsome man, Derek (Paul Sparks). But, alas, defeated by illnesses, despair, anxiety, and romantic failures, Caden is not the genius he would like to be, though occasionally he does gain a measure of artistic freedom and control.

As writer and director, Kaufman takes considerable risks-and liberties-with varying degrees of success and impact. Needless to say, it’s not entirely clear how much of these events are the manifestation of reality or just a figment of Caden’s fertile imagination. Moreover, while some characters age, others do not, but that principle, like the others, is arbitrarily applied to the proceedings.

Obviously influenced by Fellini’s “81/2,” which also revolves around a director in crisis who reflects on the various women in his life, Kaufman is a generous helmer who loves his thespians, particularly the women, giving them enough space to interpret their roles subjectively. Indeed, if nothing else, “Synecdoche” provides a field day for women, with more female roles in Kaufman’s picture than in most of Hollywood’s summer movies combined!

The always-reliable Samantha Morton shines as the adoring associate and the director’s great love, Emily Watson provides an ideal alter ego, and Michelle Williams excels as the company’s leading actress who’s cast as Caden’s wife in the dramatic play. Hope Davis, who had appeared in some of Kaufman’s stage plays, makes her mark as Caden’s tough shrink. Using German accent, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the strange Maria, who adopts Caden’s daughter in Berlin. Dianne Wiest plays two roles: a noted actress named Millicent Weems, who is first cast as a maid in the play, but after Tommy’s death, plays the role of Caden himself! The set, an inventive recreation of New York, is designed Mark Friedberg, and the shifting moods are accentuated by Jon Brion’s ominous score. Though the overall tone is that of melancholy and gravity, there’s some humor, as in the burning house episodes–Hazel is told that the owners of the smoking house are motivated to sell–and in the titles that Caden considers for his epic production, including “Infectious Diseases in Cattle.”

As noted, the deliberately hard to pronounce title, derived from the Greek, is meant to rhyme with the saga’s locale: Schenectady, New York. And as my note suggests, all of the meanings of the terms synecdoche apply to Kaufman’s surreal saga.

Overreaching and not fully satisfying, Kaufman’s jigsaw puzzle is bound to divide sharply, rivet some viewers while mystify others. The critical reaction in Cannes, judging by the press screening, was decidedly mixed.

End Note: The Meaning of the Title

Synecdoche, which derives from the Greek sunekdokh, denotes “simultaneous understanding.” It’s a figure of speech in which a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or a term denoting a whole thing is used to refer to part of it, or a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material. Synecdoche is related to metonymy, the figure of speech in which a term denoting one thing is used to refer to a related thing.

Synecdoche is a common way to suggest important aspect of a fictional character, such as a body part (eyes), rather than a whole and coherent self, which represents the character. It’s often used when the main character doesn’t know or care about the names of the characters he’s referring to.


A Likely Story/Projective Testing Service/Russia, Inc./Sidney Kimmel Entertainment presentation. International sales: Kimmel International. Produced by Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jones, Kimmel. Executive producers: William Horberg, Bruce Toll, Ray Angelic. Directed, written by Charlie Kaufman. Camera: Fred Elmes. Editor: Robert Frazen. Music: Jon Brion. Music supervisor: Bonnie Greenberg. Production designer: Mark Friedberg. Art director: Adam Stockhausen. Costume designer: Melissa Toth. Sound: Drew Kunin. Supervising sound editor: Philip Stockton. Visual effects supervisor: Mark Russell. Visual effects: Brainstorm Digital. Re-recording mixer: Reilly Steele. Cast

Caden Cotard – Philip Seymour Hoffman Hazal – Samantha Morton Claire Keen – Michelle Williams Adele Lack – Catherine Keener Tammy – Emily Watson Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems – Dianne Wiest Maria – Jennifer Jason Leigh Madeleine Gravis – Hope Davis Sammy Barnathan – Tom Noonan Olive (age 4) – Sadie Goldstein Olive (adult) – Robin Weigert Running time: 123 Minutes.