Synecdoche, New York (2008) “A Devastating Detonation of Life”


Starring:- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, Robin Weigert, Sadie Goldstein.

Directed by:- Charlie Kaufman.

What is life when you come to think about it? Now, I’m not asking you to delve into one of those deep and meandering existential questions – to whom some tumblr posts have the most perfect replies possible – because if you do, you’ll probably find yourself searching for a horse to wrap your arms around and cry your eyes out. If you ask me, life resembles mostly a cold water bottle, trying to make its mark on the table on which it is resting yet trying to remain cool. How well one perceives the fact that the circular condensation pool left by you on the table is destined to fade away, defines and provides life a physicality – pristine yet meandering – one which everyone could appreciate.

I saw Synecdoche thrice before starting to write this post, and I must say that the first two viewings, although promised brilliant storyline and performances, left me hollow like many of my friends. Some days ago, I saw the movie for the third time, it was past midnight when the movie got over and I found myself closing my eyes and walk around as Deanna Storey’s empyrean Little Person was playing during the credits. Such was the effect of Kaufman’s idiotically compassionate world, which was so resolved to crash unto itself that its demise is a rendition of a phoenix’s rebirth unto a new world filled with crass cacophonies of those romantics whom Woody Allen explored in A Midnight in Paris. Spoilers Alert.


Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is a theater director living with his miniature artist wife Adele (Keener) and daughter Olive (Goldstein) in Schenectady, New York. It’s a typical low-key family, overwrought with the pains of familial distance and forgotten ambitions, represented by Caden’s gleeful renditions of obituaries and diseases. After a successful production of Death of A Salesman, Adele leaves for Berlin with Olive for an exhibition of her works. Caden flings around with Hazel (Morton), the lady at the box office and Claire (Williams), an actress whom he ultimately marries, until he gets a MacArthur fellowship, an infinite grant for his next artistic venture.

Caden strives for the ultimate depiction of life by recreating New York inside an endless warehouse as his next theater project, wishing to reinvent the artform and present his mundane perspective on life to others. Things go out of control as Sammy (Noonan) gets on board, who claims to have followed Caden for years and is the most eligible to play him in the ambitious play, which leads to the lines between reality and fiction getting blurred, everything leading to a cataclysmic ending which turns the movie on its head.


Synecdoche is one of those movies which live, breathing in every frame of their physique. Although Tarkovsky’s The Mirror pronounces its aim through it’s title, which it does attain in an ethereal manner at best, Synecdoche serves as the literally cinematic mirror for the viewer, presenting one’s either glamorous or prosaic life in its true glory or murkiness. Thinking of Synecdoche as a comforter might not be a good idea, which some people seem to think on the basis of its topicality and themes, for its bold statements revolving around matters held in high regard in a highly surreptitious manner, because in reality it is a pillow which smothers you and pushes down pills of melancholy down your throat, giving you years of understanding and anguish, reminding one about one’s futility in making things right in the end, ’cause even if they get all right in the end, there will be a small void remaining at the murkiest corner of your conscience, which Synecdoche strives to explore with full regalia.

Synecdoche proves to be successful in providing art a true form, a true body through theater and presents the anguish, the confusions, the myriad of unmentionable feelings an artist goes through. Recently I saw Rajeev Masand’s Bollywood Director’s Roundtable 2014, with directors like Vishal Bhardwaj, Rajkumar Hirani, Imtiaz Ali and others. While answering one of Masand’s questions, Bhardwaj quipped that when his movie releases, it releases him. For artists, looking at your own product is liked looking at your naked body in the mirror, criticizing every bend and crevice of your body with utmost hatred or contemplation. I love how Kaufman presents the spectrum of artistry on the basis of size and the thought process behind such artforms, represented by Caden and Adele.


The aforementioned notion is explored savagely in small but brilliant moments in the movie. Adele covertly criticizes Caden’s outlook towards embracing art as an act of deception – presenting age old stories with new clothes is a symbol of adhering towards the ancient machinery, not promoting art but in turn killing it slowly. Adele believes in art being one’s mouthpiece a la Godard, one’s soul to such an extent that she appreciates and perceives life delicately through those miniature canvasses, art being a mere facilitator for her senses to work and her perspective to be more blunt and liberated.

Caden, at the other hand, believes that leaving one’s stamp, on whatever it is, gives it a new breath of life, something with which it could look at the world in a new light, presenting different answers for ancient questions. Maybe that’s why the television commercials and all the illustrations in this movie bear Caden, symbolizing his relationship and perspective towards the duty or boundaries of art in this world. Caden wants to make the ultimate masterpiece, one which could shake the foundations of the artform for portraying life in its truest form – complete with window sills and flies fluttering around the light bulbs.


It is Caden’s instructions which makes all the difference, serving as the humane component of the play, which escalates into something so life-altering that we lose all sense of reality and fiction. He has a hard time to reinvent or salvage his long-lost relationship with the ever-so-good Hazel as the actors playing the duo in the play – Sammy and Tammy (Watson) – provide answers to the unspoken yet sophisticated matters which were at play in destroying their relationship. Art, here proves to be a boon and a bane, as confusion and elation get mixed together in an awkward concoction where the artist has no other way but to witness his jigsaw puzzle getting completed in unprecedented ways, much to the chagrin of others.

This can also be said about Caden’s relationships with women throughout his life. Unpredictably melancholic yet comical turn of events define Caden’s attempts to find the perfect woman – idiosyncratic, servile, morose and at the same time, hopeful. Each woman, played with utmost flair with all the feminine heavyweights, seem to represent facets of the feminine side, not one being completely the one he’s looking for in his dark life. Ultimately he stumbles upon himself as the perfect one, servility and love so muddled up that they are beginning to rot inside him, Caden embraces his feminine side in the form of Ellen, a maid. Deanna Storey’s Little Person is emblematic of this facet of Caden’s tempestuous life – a woman singing a song from a man’s point of view. Kudos to Kaufman for the excellent lyrics and Jon Brion, who’s slowly becoming one of my all-time favorite composers, for this excellent piece of music which never fails to make me feel depressed, all the while exploring the rugged landscape of the movie.


Synecdoche is one of the saddest movies ever made, and it is surprising how funny it can get at some points. Kaufman flanks moments of grief with humor, daring us to react in order to place us on the intellectual spectrum. One of the scenes, which has Caden use a tear inducing medication to cry over a discarded gift, made me look away from the screen, due to it’s overarching presentation of grief, literally one of the most emotionally disturbing scenes I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Death and ignorance play a large part in Kaufman’s world, and obviously Synecdoche is no stranger to this treatment.

In Synecdoche, death is presented and perceived in the most maladroit manners possible. Caden’s autonomic functions get shut down one by one, burying the seeds of doubt and the notion of embracing death in his feeble mind. Hazel, the liveliest character in the movie, has already formed her opinion on death and thus lives in a burning house, embracing it. It serves as a constant reminder of impending doom and living life in the most spectacular manner possible in the time one has got, defining Hazel’s outlook towards life.


Synecdoche was supposed to be directed by Spike Jonze, like most of Kaufman’s screenplays. He pulled out of the project to make Where The Wild Things Are, which I think is a wonderful movie. However, I’d love to see Jonze’s version of this movie, maybe he would have toned down the melancholia and upped the comical content or would have bitten the bullet and shot it as it is, striving for a different turn in his already charismatic career. Kaufman, sitting on the director’s chair, has created such an endearing world, with such dense undertones that feel relevant to everyone, irrespective of gender, age or job. It is a wonder to recognize the fact how beautifully Kaufman has transformed the movie into an experience so troubling, so emotionally daunting that people might even try to connect the warpy nature of the play to their turbulent lives.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) was at his top form in this movie.He’s my favorite actor of all time and arguably the greatest actor of his generation. I was pretty sure that Hoffman could never defeat his turn as Phil Parma, my favorite movie character of all time, because he has the ability to truly delve into the character by peeling off the character’s skin, putting it on like a jacket and make even the slightest hairs on the eyebrows act. The level of realistic acting is truly unparalleled and this performance consolidates the well-known fact that he’s the greatest.


Synecdoche boasts of a gigantic supporting cast composed of talented actresses, who churn out truly excellent performances. I loved every one of them, but the ones I liked the most are Hope Davis, Samantha Morton and the holy queen mother of the pantheon, Dianne Wiest. All three of them present the banalities of professionalism and love in one’s lives in truly heart-wrenching manners. One deals with the absence of physical stimulation, one searches for true love whereas one regresses down to experience love through her memories. Tom Noonan and Emily Watson are great too, serving as perfect foils for their colleagues. And yes, a scene set in a plane (pic above) with Davis and Hoffman is literally one of the weirdest scenes I’ve ever laid my eyes upon.

Frederick Elmes’ cinematography and Mark Friedberg’s production design provide Synecdoche loopy physicality of gray and blue. It reminded me a lot about Roger Deakins’ work in Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading. Jon Brion’s music is so phenomenal and weird that it feels tailor-made for the movie, evoking a senses of movement, a sense of action while passing through a dense bog. Tracks like Forward Motion and Something You Can’t Return To embodies the quintessential quirkiness which encapsulates the movie and the music of Brion as a whole, reminiscent of his works like Eternal Sunshine and Punch-Drunk Love, the latter being one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.


In conclusion, Synecdoche New York is a nuclear explosion of a movie, destroying everything in its wake and splattering its victim’s lively innards on celluloid, presenting a grotesque image of life at its most vulnerable and resilient moments. A living entity of a movie, Synecdoche New York has all the ingredients of being considered in the future as a masterpiece, and considered as such it will be.

Pro:- Every single thing, right down to the dust specks flying around in scenes.

Con:- Nothing.

Ratings:- 5/5

P.S. This post was a short collection of my vague interpretation of this movie’s countless enigmatic moments, and might seem haphazard in approach. For a much refined and longer interpretation of the movie, do check out YourMovieSucksDOTOrg’s video series , dissecting the movie with flair. Thanks for reading.


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