Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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I can’t begin to even attempt to explain Synecdoche, New York. It is a layered, complex masterpiece that will elicit so many different responses from the audience – for those looking for a smart comedy-drama, this will probably be the most boring film you’ll ever see. For those looking for an existential crisis that will make you question the meaning of life and the inevitability of death, this philosophical dark comedy is right up your alley.

We meet Caden Cotard, played by the wonderfully talented and sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman, a writer and director slowly losing his mind. The banalities of everyday life, combined with a lack of inspiration for new, original ideas, has caused Caden to sink into a deep confusion and depression. Achievements other men might celebrate about – his play becoming a huge hit, receiving a MacArthur Genius grant – are almost annoyances for Caden, who seeks something higher than traditional success. The film paints a portrait of a man who simply cannot quench his thirst for greatness with what is given to him. It sets up a very unique and mind-bending journey that we go through.

We see Caden go from unhappily married with a child through almost three decades as he creates his greatest work – a huge replica of New York City in an enormous warehouse, with thousands of extras playing the people of New York. The actual concept of replicating New York inside a warehouse over this span of time is intimidating enough, and as the film goes on, the actual parameters of reality are tested. As it goes on, we struggle to differentiate between what is Caden’s real life and what is his fantasy. He immerses himself so much into his work, by the time the film ends, I am not even sure Caden himself knows the difference. Instead of the play being based on his life, the play becomes his life.

Synecdoche, New York is not simple viewing – it is incredibly complex and philosophical. It makes some intense and profound statements about this thing we call life. For as long as humanity has existed, there have always been those looking for meaning. It is my firm belief that Charlie Kaufman is indeed one of the great modern philosophers – all of his screenwriting work has resulted in an amazingly thought-provoking filmography, with Synecdoche, New York being his directorial debut and philosophical masterpiece. It is a dark and twisting journey into the mind of an unconventional genius. Caden Cotard represents everyone who hopes to achieve greatness – he uses his pedantic nature and disgruntled attitude towards the banal productions he puts on, and pursues something much more grandiose than himself.

I know I’ve made Synecdoche, New York seem like a dreary, cold and difficult film, and it is. However, there is a bitter vein of pure dark comedy flowing through it. Kaufman creates a world that is both terrifying and hilarious, and Caden has to experience it. He appears to be the most normal person in the film (and considering he spends his entire adult life building a scale replica of the most famous city in the world shows his level of sanity) – from the doctors who refuse to confirm or deny if Caden is dying, to the panoply of colorful characters he comes into contact with, including an incredibly creepy actor who calls his obsession with Caden “research”, when everyone else calls it “stalking”. There are some very funny moments, including some very strange conversations about bathroom habits that are spoken of so casually. It is unique in the way that it has some brilliant moments of humor to dilute the heavy messages of the film. That, along with the incredible soundtrack by Jon Brion, makes this a completely transcendent and wonderful experience.

I haven’t even begun to touch upon all the messages this film conveys in its two-hour duration. The film is deep and dark and filled with some incredibly profound messages pertaining to life – how it doesn’t last forever, and how we should value every moment. It takes the idea even further, showing that while we believe ourselves to be the most important person in the universe, it makes a clear message that every person we see in our lives is not simply a background extra or supporting character – each individual is the lead player in their own life. We should value every minute we have here, and do our best to create our own visions and spend our lives creating our own masterpieces – whether it is a play, a book or simply a pleasant life. Caden Cotard chose to spend his life trying to find meaning of life, but losing concept of reality along the way. It is profoundly terrifying and incredibly moving. You will not see a more intelligent and thought-provoking work of fiction.

Quite simply put, Synecdoche, New York is one of the greatest films of the 21st century so far, if not the very best. It is just incredible. Nothing more to say about it.

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