A small part of the big picture

Sarah Woolley 27 June 2009

Synecdoche, New York – 4/5

There’s a moment in Annie Hall when Woody Allen turns to us and says ‘you know how you’re always tryin’ to get things to come out perfect in art because, uh, it’s real difficult in life?’ Synecdoche, New York delivers the misery that occurs when we value perfection above the grace of our failures.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden, a theatre director with fading health, marriage and optimism. When a genius grant arrives his wife and daughter have left and he is beholden to his ambition to be ‘big and true and tough. You know, finally put my real self into something.’ Being a Charlie Kaufman movie, the writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, time, space and thought will melt together, naturally. The confusion of projections, dreams and real life takes us deeper into a mind than Kaufman ever invited us before with Being John Malkovich. Synecdoche is our way of thinking through the world with symbols and feelings but warns us on sleepwalking through the whole snafu.

Inside a vast warehouse Caden constructs an alternative, staged New York with a thousand strong cast struggling to meet his demand. On top of this he’s cast doppelganger actors as himself and those around him and before long his life and art are symbiotically feeding upon one another. The satisfaction doesn’t come from detecting answers but the intimacy that Hoffman creates in a man terrified and obsessed.

Synecdoche itself is a term used when a small part of something is used to describe its whole and vice versa. For example the press = the news media. It’s a tidy conceit giving us a little hope as we hear the lyrics lingering over Caden’s romantic encounters: ‘I’m just a little person/One person in a sea/Of many little people/Who are not aware of me’. Caden’s theatrical creations can stand for all people or his fractured identities but they reveal a chance for community as well as isolation that our hero fails to notice, preoccupied with a failing nervous system and a tendency to cry during sex.

Kaufman’s writing and direction impresses with its movement away from his renown for the ‘quirky.’ It’s a matter of personal taste if two hours of neurosis is palatable without Kate Winslet’s orange hair to brighten things but it’s a trying film, even for those of who revel in the persistent questioning of how to be honest and good in the world. Most of the metaphors fall short. For instance wide-eyed love interest Hazel (Samantha Morton) is resigned but courageous so she buys a house that is curiously but tediously forever on fire. The performances in Synecdoche carry the emotion through its surreal moments but they don’t make up for them. This is Kauffman’s directorial debut so Synecdoche lacks collaboration with the directors he’s commonly associated with: Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, otherwise known as people outside of the Kaufman brain. Their distance may have produced a more disciplined film that could have edited the baggy overstatements.

Sarah Woolley