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Synecdoche, New York

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Synecdoche, New York

Caden examines his wife’s miniature paintings in “Synecdoche, New York”

It's a pretty dull year for film, but Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut feature, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK would qualify as an imaginative film in any year.

The virtually unpronounceable film title, the film's convoluted and improbable storyline should work against it – but this film is original with the big O.   Nothing much matters once you buckle your seat belt and go along for a pretty thrilling ride.  

SYNECDOCHE clocks in at 124 minutes and it feels like a lifetime – not because it's too long or because you are bored, but because there is so much packed in that you need a few more hours just to decompress.   

The film starts out with an almost-all-American family living in Schenectady , New York , where Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman directs a small theatre company. His wife, Adele Lack, is a painter, and she soon takes off with their daughter to Berlin where she is having a gallery show.  

Dysfunction, deterioration, dissolution afflict the characters and the environment, most particularly Caden, who finds himself blocked in by directing plays that are the personal expressions of others who wrote them, and blocked, until Adele leaves, from consummating his attraction to Hazel, the box-office girl at the theatre, played by Samantha Morton.  

Hazel is weird, too, at least when it comes to her living conditions – she buys and lives in a house that's constantly burning and filled with smoke.  There is a lot of neo-Freudian focus on bodily functions and excretion. Caden and Adele's daughter Olive, 10, becomes a work of art through her bodily tattoo-adornment, and Adele's paintings are so miniaturized, they need to be viewed with a magnifying glass.   

This is all then, the first part of the film, and suddenly the action jumps to 2009.  Caden wins a MacArthur genius award, which lets him unleash his creative genius. He undertakes a massive theatrical venture in which the large cast of actors will reenact life, according to Caden. This “life”, as imagined and portrayed through theatre, takes place in an enormous warehouse. Here nothing less than the island of Manhattan has been newly constructed.  

Things only get more complicated. Tom Noonan, an actor who is pretty thin and looks nothing like Caden plays him, while Emily Watson, who looks pretty much like Hazel, takes her role. The emotional ties between the actors and the real-life personages they are portraying soon get entangled, as Caden tries to orchestrate this vast fresco of tangled relationships of which he is, for the most part, the center.  

What is ultimately SYNECDOCHE about? Everything and nothing. In truth, the film is kind of a mess, but it's such a brilliant mess that you don't mind. Perhaps it's a sign of the times we live in.  Freaked out as we are by the collapsing universe around us, we place so little value on the imagination. Charlie Kaufman's film is imagination above all, and its grandiose and fantastic construct careens from episode to episode, getting all the more tangled along the way. At the center of it is the character of Caden – a dysfunctional character, striving for artistic validation, self-realization through art.  His own neuroses, the half-baked relationships he forms with others, including women, his unfocused, grand design to produce something so monumental it will make it all, and especially himself, come together, are part and parcel of this hyper-reality.  Caden, the character, gets a chance all of us at some point hope for: to create a life for ourselves out of our dreams, a facsimile of ourselves that is somehow more controllable and less blemished.  

You may read a lot of analysis of whether or not SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK works or not, if it makes sense. It doesn't really matter. It's so brilliant and original, it is such an outlandish reach, that even if the pieces don't always perfectly fit, you sit in awe of what you've seen.   

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

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