Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 119 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
Anyone who has seen the films Charlie Kaufman has written (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will know that he does not make it easy for us, the audience. We have to work hard to keep our bearings in a Kaufman screenplay, and even then we may not always feel we are on secure ground.
For this bleak, almost nihilistic comedy-drama, his first as director as well as writer, he compounds the mystery by using an arcane word in the title. To explain that first: synecdoche (pronounced “si-NEK-duh-kee”), from the Greek, is a term that denotes using a part of something to refer to the whole thing. Here it is also a play on Schenectady, where the film begins.
In that city in New York State, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the director of a theatre company. At the film’s opening, he in the final stages of rehearsal for his daring production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman using young actors in the roles of ageing Willy Loman and his wife. Caden’s life is starting to crumble, a bit like Willy’s. He is under stress with the play, he starts fretting about his health and then his marriage breaks up when his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) – who paints miniatures so small that they can be viewed only via a magnifying glass – takes their four-year-old daughter Olive to Germany, where she has an exhibition, and doesn’t come back.
Caden misses his daughter badly and he goes downhill fast. Not even the ministrations of Hazel (Samantha Morton), the girl in the box office who has always loved him, can help. Then he gets an unexpected financial windfall and he takes over a vast warehouse in New York and starts auditioning and rehearsing an epic play, “pure and truthful”, about his life. He marries the pretty leading lady, Claire (Michelle Williams), but that doesn’t quell his unhappiness. He still yearns for his little Olive, who in the meantime has grown up as a lesbian sex worker in Germany covered with tattoos.
This is a highly simplified linear version of the plot. The treatment by writer-director Kaufman, however, is anything but simple. He adds layer upon layer of mystique and fantasy, Alice in Wonderland fashion. Caden hires actors to play him and Hazel in his epic, and then they take over in some scenes. The actors are living their lives for them, leaving the real Caden and Hazel as mere observers.
The play, by the way, is in rehearsal for 17 years. Caden is unsure what title to give it. One he likes is “Infectious Diseases in Cattle”. “It means a lot of things,” he says mysteriously.
Before long, you are not sure which scenes are “real” and which are the product of Caden’s fevered imagination as he tries to make sense of his life. Is he, in fact, going mad? It is simultaneously fascinating and irritating, stimulating and perplexing.
In the end, the odour of despair hangs over Caden as his life sputters to its end, and you wonder whether the film’s meaning is summed up in his statement: “No one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own.” Not a word is said about faith or any uplifting force, but perhaps the film works as a salutary lesson on what can happen to a person whose life has no centre.
If you can put up with this negativity, the film has many fine scenes and some sharp satirical digs (at avant-garde theatre, psychiatry) and it offers much to think about. The cast is wonderful, starting with Philip Seymour Hoffman, a gifted actor, and includes in relatively minor roles Hope Davis (as Caden’s shrink, forever promoting her latest book), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson.
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