Impossibly dense but nonetheless brilliant, Synecdoche, New York, is the best translation of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay to the screen yet. Kaufman, who wrote Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed it himself.
Synecdoche is about no less than life, and living, and death, and dying, and the things we substitute for these, and the things they themselves substitute. It’s Kaufman’s 8½.
A synecdoche is a figure of speech that means, as Kaufman put it in a radio interview, referring to the whole by one of its parts, such as calling your car your “wheels.” It also means, as Merriam-Webster fills me in, “…the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage).”
The film takes place (supposedly) in Schenectady, New York, an actual town not far from where I grew up, pronounced kinda like the title. There’s a lot of wordplay in the movie, like when Caden Cadot (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to explain the difference between psychosis and sycosis to his daughter: “well, there’s two kinds of psychosis, they’re spelled differently, p-s-y is like when you’re crazy, like your mother, and s-y is like these ugly things on my face.” “But you could have both, though,” his daughter responds.
A plot rundown is pointless here, but I’ll try: theater director Caden Cadot is unhappy, fearing death, putting on a version of Death of a Salesman using young actors in the leading roles.
He’s married to an artist Adele (Catherine Keener), who paints microscopic works that gallery patrons view while walking around wearing special magnifying glasses. They have a daughter, Olive; Adele takes her to an opening in Berlin, along with her ‘friend’ Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and never returns.
Caden attempts to flirt with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton), who buys a house that happens to be on fire (“the owners are very motivated”). The realtor’s son, Derek, lives in the basement. Caden’s leading lady, Claire (Michelle Williams) flirts with him, though he doesn’t seem to be too interested. Caden’s psychiatrist (Hope Davis) sells him her self-help book.
Eventually, Caden is given a genius grant, with (seemingly) limitless funds, to create a masterwork of art.
He constructs the ultimate play – just like Kaufman has constructed this movie – a version, and vision, of his life, set in an impossibly large warehouse that reconstructs the entire city, with actors playing himself (Tom Noonan) and Hazel (Emily Watson) and even random people he passes on the street, and eventually, of course, actors playing these actors and so on. Each day the play grows larger, as life happens around him and he reconstructs it inside the warehouse walls.
“When are we gonna get an audience in here?” his cast asks him. “It’s been seventeen years.”
The play is a synecdoche for life, as is life a synecdoche for the play, as is Synecdoche, New York, a synecdoche for life and the play it contains and so on and so forth until it comes back to you. It’s a vividly surreal masterwork on the level of Buñuel or Lynch that actually manages to elicit an emotional response along with the usual intellectual one.
It’s something attempted in most of Kaufman’s screenplays, and most often cited by detractors. “The film is too smart for its own good,” “how can we care about these characters,” “they’re just pawns in an intellectual thesis.”
In Synecdoche we care about the characters, because we realize they are us, and you.