Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Synecdoche, New York

Review by Matt Starr

Not surprisingly, Synecdoche, New York is a puzzle of a film with themes and metaphors that are difficult to grasp; just the title alone is enough to confuse movie goers. A “synecdoche” is a term that implies a part of something is being described as the whole (or vice-versa). The word is also a pun on the name of Schenectady, which is an actual city in New York.  The film is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who is well-known for his screenplays Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

Kaufman may very well be the David Lynch of this generation. He was present for a question and answer session at the screening I attended and his answers were very similar to those of David Lynch at the screening of Inland Empire I attended a few years ago. For example, one of his responses was “you know I can’t answer that question”. When an audience member asked Kaufman the reasoning behind a scene she deemed her favorite in the film, his answer became a question for the audience member. He asked her why it was her favorite film and based on her response said that’s why he did the scene that way.

Basically like the mysterious Lynch, Kaufman is saying that he makes the film for the viewer to interpret and make their own. Sometimes this works beautifully (like in Mulholland Drive or Eternal Sunshine) and sometimes it does not. Lynch had his share of mediocre, even bad films and this latest project from Charlie Kaufman is not very good either.

The main character is a playwright and theatre director by the name of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Based on his writing he receives a grant and he decides to use it to start filming a play based upon his life. The story follows his relationship with various women, including two wives, a mistress and a few actresses. Caden’s bodily functions gradually deteriorate throughout the film much like his relationships with those around him. 

The acting here is commendable. Literally all of the female roles are played by very strong actresses (Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) although no one actress stands out. The problem is that with so many women there is little opportunity for any single one to shine, and no one relationship in the story has any real effectiveness. As for Hoffman it is par the course for him, he is excellent. Unfortunately all this talent isn’t able to come through in this movie, a fact that seems to make it derail very quickly.

Kaufman is perhaps the greatest original screenplay writer in the business today but it is questionable whether or not he has the chops to direct. His work looked brilliant in the hands of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, and perhaps that is the route he should stick to.

2 ½ / 5 stars

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