Think of your most uncomfortable thoughts, your most alarming moments of self-loathing, your most physically repulsive encounters with your own body, and your most despairing contemplations on life and art. Multiply them times ten, translate them into the sights and sounds of cinema, and blow them up until they stretch across the Harris projection screen, and then deal with it for two hours.
That’s what it’s like to experience “Synecdoche, New York.” I highly recommend it.
The importance of the plot is debatable, but here goes: successful playwright Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) thinks he’s dying, which he is. His body becomes a shrine to this fear, habitually manifesting his neuroses in gross expulsions of various bodily fluids (lots of fluids in this one). His wife and daughter leave him, but at the brink of despair, he receives a MacArthur Genius Grant and decides to make a play about his life. Predictably, he hurtles right over a brink, and the rest of the film plunges almost gleefully into the most unnerving of metaphysical quandaries.
Narrative becomes irrelevant in light of self-reflexive ruminations on a myriad of synecdoches—parts that stand for the whole. The film abounds with them: the giant set Caden builds inside a warehouse is synecdochical for New York City, the parts he casts are synecdochical for the real people in Caden’s life, his relationships with the actors are synecdochical for his relationships with the people they play. Simultaneously, the film itself is synecdochical for life—“a fraction of a fraction of a moment,” an event you erroneously think you control, a spectacle for you and others to observe but never truly understand.
In order to grapple with all of these convoluted parts and elusive wholes, all sense of time is lost as Caden catapults back and forth along a muddled temporal trajectory, leaving us with innumerable questions. What if the voice mail message on your cell phone today outlives you 40 years later? What would it be like to perpetually experience the event of your house burning down, never arriving at the moment when it is burned down?
Caden’s futile search for a static selfhood mirrors the title he momentarily considers for his play: “Simulacrum,” or postmodernist Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical concept that there is no real, no core kernel of self, no spoon—only copies of copies.
Why such a nauseating waltz with the most troubling of questions about life, death, and art? Because Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter who brought you such brain-skewering fare as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” has finally taken his first spin in the director’s chair, and he wants to share his deep dark thoughts.
Kaufman’s style does make the movie incredibly self-indulgent, though, and only becomes increasingly more noticeable the more Caden spirals into the bile ducts of death. At least it also admits to its self-deprecating navel-gazing.
We might get some explanation from this little Kaufman gem that he recently lamented during an interview with Wired: “There really is only one ending to any story. Human life ends in death. Until then, it keeps going and gets complicated and there’s loss. Everything involves loss; every relationship ends in one way or another.”