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Off The Deep End: Surrealistic masterpiece creates the ultimate existential dilemma 

Been waitin' for the bus all day. Knowing writer Charlie Kaufman's (Being John Malkovich/Adaptation) warped sense of humor, I figured the misspelling of Schenectady, New

click to enlarge Been waitin' for the bus all day. : Been waitin' for the bus all day.
  • Been waitin' for the bus all day. : Been waitin' for the bus all day.
Been waitin' for the bus all day.
Knowing writer Charlie Kaufman's (Being John Malkovich/Adaptation) warped sense of humor, I figured the misspelling of Schenectady, New York was a setup for a cool in-joke. Turns out "synecdoche" is a real word, which according to Webster's means, "a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as society for high society).

And Synecdoche New York is set in Schenectady. This movie is a surreal mess, mesmerizing in its complexities, perfectly depicting depressing beauty with stunning diatribes of madness, loneliness and despair. It's also a hilariously dark comedy.

Directing for the first time, Kaufman delivers what seems a straightforward story, but after a few minutes things start to twist. The first few hints involve the misinterpretation and mispronunciation of words. Kaufman then begins to fill the screen with images and ideas at a rapid pace. Soon we figure out that it's not going to do us any good to try and make sense of this journey. Just sit back and enjoy the circus.


The story's main character, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a depressed stage director with marital problems and some mysterious health ailments. The last name of Hoffman's character refers to Cotard's syndrome, also known as "nihilistic" or "negation delusion," which is a rare neuropsychiatric disorder. He decides to write and direct his own opus. Trouble is this endeavor encompasses his real life, so it's constantly being written/rewritten and rehearsed (on a daily basis) making it impossible to be produced or even performed.

Synecdoche becomes metaphor city. Taking the adage about life imitating art, and vice versa, to new heights, characters switch roles as they rehearse; at times we get two to three actors playing the actors we are watching interacting with two to three other actors playing another character in the play at the same time - confusing but highly entertaining.

The cast is up to the task. Hoffman's lonely, despondent Caden comes off with such inner turmoil that he speaks loudest when silent. The strong female ensemble (Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams) all deliver powerful, funny and sexy performances. Character actor Tom Noonan has never been better almost stealing the movie.

While Synecdoche takes potshots and stabs at art, it also holds art in high regard, almost reverently. Kauffman dissects traditional ideas, showing us that the abstract is the norm and the chasing of dreams is futile. Life, sex and death just fall into repetition and we humans exist to make mistakes, wither, and die. Sometimes the film seems like a demented version of Hesse's Steppenwolf, other times a David Lynch nightmare. But you just have to accept what you see and give into the surrealism of it all. Let the vivid images be what they are and go where they take you. To its vast credit, no matter how dizzying the movie becomes, when the characters show real emotions in the midst of the garbled mess, we drop all preconceptions about how movies are supposed to work.

In Synecdoche, everyone has random and disconnected thoughts. And so do we. The message here is that they are our thoughts connected to our brains until the day we die. Caden puts it best when he says, "There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories."

This movie culminates in a very sobering exploration of death and identity - who are we/why are we here/why do we do the things we do? Synecdoche, New York is either an existential nightmare or a beautiful poetic vision. I just can't tell - I am going to have to watch it again to see if I agree with myself.

Synecdoche, New York ★★★★

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan. Written & Directed by: Charlie Kaufman

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