The only reason everyone isn’t already talking about Charlie Kaufman’s new movie—the one starring Michelle Williams and Catherine Keener—is that the name is hard to say. But Synecdoche, New York (for the record, it’s Sin-ECK-duh-kee) has party chatter and nominations written all over it. For one thing, the movie, destined to be known this fall as “that new Charlie Kaufman film,” is the screenwriter's directorial debut, allowing Kaufman the freedom to go even more madcap than his previous hits, which include Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the performance of his life (but really, when has he ever not?) as the downtrodden lead, a hypochondriac theater director named Caden Cotard who is obsessed with death and feels his life is caving in around him.
One reviewer said that Synecdoche, New York is so glum that Kaufman might as well have made “a suicide note,” but I think it’s closer to a love letter—to women and strong actresses, who make life, real and imagined, that much more bearable.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to see the film is the women. Synecdoche features one of the best ensemble casts of American and British female actors in years, including Williams, Keener, and British actress Samantha Morton. It’s Morton’s coming-out party in the US, and her introduction to audiences who may not have seen her in Sweet and Lowdown or In America. After Synecdoche, it will be impossible not to take notice of her talent.
The film also cements the star status of Michelle Williams, who more than proved herself in Brokeback Mountain but was in dire need of a meaty role after the tabloid year she’s had to endure. She is spot-on as Claire, Caden's narcissistic second wife and the lead actor in his play. Beguiling and sweet, she captivates Hoffman’s schlump but quickly grows tired of his warped reality and his inability to provide for her. Williams is beautiful throughout, but also admirably unlikable—she fits right into the classic Kaufman milieu of gorgeous women (see Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet) roughing themselves up a bit for a role. Caden’s first love in the film is Catherine Keener, who is perfect as Adele Lack, his artist wife who paints portraits so small that one must use a magnifying lens to see them. The start of the movie focuses on their relationship, which is as banal as that of two aging bohemians living in Schenectady and trying to raise a young daughter can be. They squabble, go to couples therapy, listen to public radio.
Keener is heartbreaking; at one point in therapy, she admits that she has dreamed of her husband’s death and how liberating that would be, punctuating the thought with, “Is that terrible?” And when Adele decides to abandon Caden for Berlin and takes their toddler with her, both the film and the audience suffer the loss.
Enter Morton and Williams, who carry the second act. After Adele’s departure, the film takes the expected turn into Kaufman magical realism—Caden wins a hefty Genius grant, and with it, decides to build a replica of Manhattan inside an enormous New York warehouse and re-create his own life as a theater piece. He casts himself, and the women in his life, and then also realizes he must cast actors to play those actors—it is an almost infinite loop of art with no end in sight.
While creating the maddening piece, Caden is bolstered by Morton, who plays Hazel, who ran the theater box office in Schenectady and becomes his lover and assistant. Hazel may be the movie’s most perplexing character—she lives in a house on fire for more than 50 years, smoke and all. (Kaufman says of this, “You might get more out of it if that particular metaphor speaks to you, but you don’t need to.”) She is also Caden’s loyal companion for the duration, her red curls turning to gray over the course of decades as she stands by him. Morton’s clear blue stare and girlish smirk shine through the aging makeup and even after the film’s end.
The show’s third act—when Caden becomes completely overwhelmed by his alternate reality—rolls out final female surprises. The fantastic Robin Weigert plays Caden’s grown (and dying) daughter, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is her strange German lover. Emily Watson plays Hazel in Caden’s show and becomes a real-life stand-in for Caden’s longtime partner. Dianne Wiest is excellent as Millicent Weems, a grand actress who takes the role of the play’s housekeeper.
Weist’s voice guides Caden through the last moments of his life (she gets the film’s last word, “Die”), and if it sounds confusing, it’s meant to be. No summary can accurately describe the film, except to say that it is about death, the end of love, loss, illness, failure, stunted growth, and women. It is pretty bleak, save the women, and it’s not hard to see that Kaufman meant it this way. Where Hoffman slogs through the film as a bloated, sorrowful everyman (OK, an everyman hurtling toward an Oscar), the women come and go, infusing his life with light and promise. He can’t always treat them well, and they sacrifice much to be in his orbit, but while each woman is on screen, the film seems to slow down in awe. One reviewer said that Synecdoche, New York is so glum that Kaufman might as well have made “a suicide note,” but I think it’s closer to a love letter—to women and strong actresses, who make life, real and imagined, that much more bearable.