Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Life is a cabaret…

Charlie Kaufman has long been regarded as one of America’s most intriguing screenwriters. Having penned such films as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), his works delve deep into the human psyche, confronting issues of identity and self-awareness in outlandish ways that could easily intimidate and alienate an audience. But thanks to the strength of Kaufman’s writing and the clarity of his vision, his films have proven to be some of the most interesting and acclaimed projects fighting their way out of the originality-vacuum that is modern Hollywood. And his latest, Synecdoche, New York – which marks Kaufman’s debut as a director – is undoubtedly his finest work to date.

Having been successful in regional theatre in upstate New York, theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is preparing to stage a play on the hallowed ground of Broadway. Absolutely determined to create a piece of work that is brutal realism in the extreme, he gathers together a huge cast for rehearsals in a massive Manhattan warehouse. As the years fly past in an indistinguishable blur, Caden’s marriage to his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) breaks down and he sets up home with actress Claire (Michelle Williams), all the while desperately trying to perfect his play. But, as the New York set grows to massive proportions, Caden’s play begins to become more real to him than his own life and soon fantasy and reality are overlapping with confusing ease. As Caden begins to succumb to a mysterious illness, he desperately attempts to sort fact from fiction in order to discover just who he really is.


That this is Kaufman’s most biographical film is obvious in Caden’s pin-point obsession with the written word, the fact that he lives his life through his creations and that the more he writes, the more he is losing his sense of self. Yet the fact Kaufman has mined so close to home doesn’t make Synecdoche, New York narrow in focus or too personal for a wide appeal. Although it’s undoubtedly a challenging viewing experience – particularly when Caden hires actors to play himself and those around him, and his theatrical set becomes identical to his real life surroundings – its central themes remain strong enough to carry the film through its many Twlight Zone-esque bizarre moments. Through it all Caden is, quite literally, watching his life pass before him, played out by actors, as he struggles for a literary perfection that continues to elude him, and the concept that ‘life is for living’ is one with universal appeal.

The strength of Kaufman’s writing is matched by the film’s performances, particularly by the always brilliant Seymour Hoffman who carries Caden’s intensity, vulnerability and oddness with aplomb. And although his character never quite fulfills his dreams and ambitions, with Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman has most certainly turned in one of the most beautifully realised, exquisitely made films of the year. Simply put, it’s astonishing.

5 stars

Play Synecdoche, New York Trailer

Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton
Director & Screenplay Charlie Kaufman
Certificate 12
Distributor Revolver Entertainment
Running Time 2hrs 4mins
Opening Date May 15th