This is turning into the Love It/Hate it movie of the year. One thing is for sure: the film is inspiring some very fierce partisans who are heralding it just as much as others are downright loathing it.
Here's a review from Owen Gleiberman whom I must say lately has been bringing it as a reviewer with some scathing dismissals. This one is a little to pat for me, but...
From Entertainment Weekly
OWEN GLEIBERMAN - D+
It's a hallowed ritual of film culture. An artist makes a movie that is so labyrinthine and obscure, such a road map of blind alleys, such a turgid challenge to sit through that it sends most people skulking out of the theater — except, that is, for a cadre of eggheads who hail the work as a visionary achievement. It happened in 1961, with that high-society puzzle obscura Last Year at Marienbad, and in 2006, with David Lynch's through-the-looking-glass bore Inland Empire. Now Charlie Kaufman, the brain-tickling screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has directed his first movie, Synecdoche, New York (he also wrote it), and yes, it is one of those ''visionary'' what-the-hell doozies. Prepare to be told that it's a masterpiece.
For 45 minutes or so, Kaufman unveils the odd but watchable tale of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., whose life turns darkly surreal. His wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their daughter, and he develops a degenerative illness as serious as it is vague (pustules, fading eyesight, premature aging). He's like Woody Allen trapped in a Debbie Downer nightmare. But that's the fun part. In the second half, Caden stages his life as a play, gathering a cast of actors who merge (sort of) with their roles. As they do, Caden adds more and more layers to his theatrical experiment, until he's watching himself watch the actors play characters who are observing themselves. Or something. I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: The compulsion to stand outside of one's life and observe it to this degree isn't the mechanism of art — it's the structure of psychosis.
(INCIDENTALLY - I just watched 'Last Year at Marienbad' for the first time two weeks ago and thought it was so fascinating to think about what every directing choice Alain Resnais was using to playfully lead us into the entrance/exit-less maze he was constructing, that I could not get into this movie. It's formally audacious and I was completely transfixed by what Resnais was doing to comment while lead, but my God did I not care what happened. I don't think I'm supposed to; ultimately, I think I have little use for it outside of examination.)
From Lessons in Darkness...
NICK SCHAGER - A-
Synecdoche, New York may commence with the drab realism of an Arthur Miller play – such as, say, Death of a Salesman, the production being staged by perpetually glum regional-theater playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – but since this is the directorial debut of mad genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the film soon reveals its true nature as a vortex of meta-psychoanalysis that extends outward from its mopey Kaufman-proxy protagonist to encapsulate humanity at large. An exhilarating authorial confession of loneliness, regret, misery, fear of death and illness, self-doubt, time, space and all other concerns under the moon and stars, it’s the story of man wracked by external pustules and internal maladies. Limited its aims most certainly are not, a sad-sack fictionalized profile that takes a leap down the rabbit hole and morphs – like all of Kaufman’s scripts, a point articulated by Caden’s early, knowing question, “Why do I always make it so complicated?” – into a morosely self-aware funhouse of foibles, hang-ups and the (potentially futile) search for comprehension of one’s inherently twisted, contradictory nature through artistic invention.
Obsessed with decay (his own, his career’s, his marriage’s), hypochondriac Caden is left by his successful painter wife Adele (a physically and emotionally disheveled Catherine Keener), who absconds to Berlin with their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). This abandonment is, for the always glass-half-empty Caden, both a case of worst fears realized and self-fulfilling prophecy. And almost instantaneously, it instigates a descent into chronology-obliterating solipsistic madness in which Caden – the beneficiary of a financially lucrative MacArthur grant – rents a zeppelin-sized warehouse and, while Adele is away (for a week? A year?) begins staging a play about his life that grows into a play about everyone’s life, with the set itself expanding into a miniature metropolis whose buildings and people are constantly being fictionally duplicated. Starting with Sammy (the great Tom Noonan), a man who’s been stalking Caden and is then hired to play him in the show, doppelgängers (and doppelgängers of doppelgängers) soon proliferate, as do edifices, with warehouses built within warehouses and Caden’s real-life abodes reconstructed as performance venues, a spiraling sequence of repetitions akin to the infinite doubling effect produced when two mirrors face each other.
It’s Kaufman’s uncompromisingly dreary 8 ½, replete with a bevy of romantic interests led by a box office clerk who lives in a perpetually on-fire house (the winningly flirty Samantha Morton), a fetching, smitten leading lady (Michelle Williams) as well as, in the film’s typically head-spinning circular fashion, the actresses hired to play those women. Scored to Jon Brion’s agonizingly tender musical theme, which exudes desolate melancholy over things (love, bodies, opportunities) destroyed by time, Synecdoche, New York – its titular locale’s name a reference to a thing that stands in for a larger whole – is a magnificently sprawling puzzle of a Kaufman self-portrait, an uninhibited navel-gazing work of relentless wry glumness. Yet if the film’s general absence of tonal modulation and oppressively bleak aesthetic underscore how responsible Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) were for providing prior Kaufman efforts with their light, effervescent touches, its dour, intricate struggle with issues of identity, art, and personal/professional satisfaction nonetheless feels like the “brutal truth” Caden is striving for through his own burgeoning, comprehensive opus.
The same holds true for Hoffman’s performance, a one-note expression of miasmatic neurosis that begins as a fairly conventional fictional conceit, but eventually locates an honesty – about lack of certainty, about confused desire, about the enlivening and deadening consequences of everyday and artistic narcissism – that’s acutely raw and severe. Synecdoche, New York may be epitomized by an early scene of Caden intently investigating his own bloody stool, a gaze into an ugly abyss of anxieties and phobias, and it’s unabashedly indulgent narrative ultimately leads to nothing less than a (somehow simultaneously literal and figurative) apocalypse that’s still not enough to quell its protagonist’s desire for creative self-analytic reinvention. Yet Kaufman’s meta-meta mind-boggler is, ultimately, far more heady and haunting than maddeningly egocentric, typified by an elderly Caden’s conversation with a dying, adult Olive (Robin Weigert), during which her demand that he admit to a phony homosexual affair lands with an overly scripted thud that’s redeemed, with piercing poignancy, by the subsequently mournful image of one of her flower tattoos falling, withered, from her lifeless arm.
From New York Press
Charlie Kaufman turns to Philip Seymour Hoffman to tackle his neuroses
By Armond White
Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Running Time: 124 min.
One has not truly suffered as a moviegoer until seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman perform a seizure in Synecdoche, New York. This freak-out has nothing to do with art and more to do with career promotion: Our cultural gatekeepers have rushed to crown ham-actor Hoffman King of the Ugly and Obvious Art Movie. And Charlie Kaufman’s been dubbed a genius ever since he wrote the preternaturally clever gimmick movie Being John Malkovich. Now Kaufman’s been commissioned to make his own weird directorial debut, starring the unctuous Hoffman as his latest disgusting alter ego. It is as close to an abomination as 2008 cinema needs to come.
Entirely too “clever”—filled with half-ideas—this story about upstate New York theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) parades all of Kaufman’s neuroses: sexual frustration, creative surfeit (not a creative block), body hatred and celebrity paranoia. What’s missing is universality; that’s swallowed up by Kaufman’s intellectual egomania. Caden goes from re-staging Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a yuppie’s geriatric nightmare performed by twenty-somethings to mounting big-budget surrealistic art movies on a mammoth soundstage. This advertises Kaufman’s distance from Miller’s sentimentality while congratulating hipsters for their cynical whimsy—and their ignorance of Fellini’s 8 1/2. In Synedoche, Kaufman has been afforded a privilege he doesn’t deserve; his unimaginative imagery never comes close to the magnificence that visionary director John Moore creates in the turbulent tableaux of Max Payne. (?!?!?!)
Kaufman’s artiness ignores political reality—further congratulating hipsters who prefer Todd Haynes–style narcissism to Todd Solondz’s humane sociological explorations (Kaufman imitates both). This is exactly the overboard pomposity Kaufman threatened in his first scripts, Malkovich and Human Nature. Passing off egghead neurasthenia as genius, Kaufman makes Caden so convinced he’s dying that in addition to seizures, he breaks out in sores. It’s even suggested that Caden’s divorce from Catherine Keener is a projection of his own death wish—like the male/female, young/old doppelganger characters who hound and perplex him. When Kaufman delivers Caden’s final, bleak message—“Everyone is everyone. You’re Ellen and all her meager sadness”—I longed for the days when a Woody Allen character “made a meager living selling meagers.”
Pity those nerds and fashion-sheep who'll waste time trying to connect Kaufman’s symbols, cite the many David Lynch references and puzzle for ways to use “synecdoche” in daily conversation. Also pity the very good actresses—Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton and Dianne Wiest—who Kaufman convinced to appear dumpy and repulsive. They also had to work with Le Hoffman.
...and the lovely MANHOLA DARGIS
Dreamer, Live in the Here and Now
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: October 24, 2008
To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now. That at least would be an appropriate response to a film about failure, about the struggle to make your mark in a world filled with people who are more gifted, beautiful, glamorous and desirable than the rest of us — we who are crippled by narcissistic inadequacy, yes, of course, but also by real horror, by zits, flab and the cancer that we know (we know!) is eating away at us and leaving us no choice but to lie down and die.
Yet since this is a review of a new Charlie Kaufman work, perhaps I should hit rewind: “Synecdoche, New York” is the first film directed by the writer of such unlikely Hollywood entertainments as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a romance of such delicate feeling that it’s still a shock that it carries a studio brand. Mr. Kaufman’s kinked, playful screenplays are usually accompanied by a flurry of “e” adjectives: eclectic, eccentric, edgy, eggheady. (Also: quirky.) That’s true only if you consider the contemporary American screen, with its talking Chihuahuas and adult male babies with mother fixations. Come to think of it, the main character in “Synecdoche” has a thing about poop and bosomy women, though happily not at the same time.
To continue, despite my agonizing self-consciousness: “Synecdoche” is the story of a theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, exhaling despair with every breath), miserably married to a talented painter, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener). The two live in Schenectady, N.Y., with their 4-year-old, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), who, when the story opens, is casually evacuating radioactive-green feces. Neither Caden nor Adele is alarmed, so intensely are they wrapped up in a depressive melancholia they seem to have nurtured longer than their daughter. Even couples therapy (with Hope Davis, in a dazzling brief turn) brings out the worst in them. “Can I say something awful?,” Adele asks (as if she needed permission), before confessing that she fantasized Caden dying. Which made her happy.
Caden lives with Adele and Olive in a “fragile-seeming home,” which is true even if those particular words were written by Arthur Miller, who uses them to describe Willy Loman’s home. As it happens, Caden is directing “Death of a Salesman,” but with a twist: the actors (including Michelle Williams), are all young. The tragedy of the play, explains Caden, will emerge from the casting: the audience will see the young actors and know that, in time, they will end up every bit as crushed as Willy. In “Salesman,” Miller writes that an air of the dream clings to Willy’s home, “a dream rising out of reality.” Mr. Kaufman doesn’t directly quote these words, yet they hover over the film nonetheless.
“Salesman” is a smash, but everything else falls to smithereens. Adele, who smirks through the play and asks Caden why he’s wasting himself on other people’s work, takes Olive to Berlin for a show that will make the painter a star. Caden stays behind, worrying the sores that have sprouted on his body and watching a pharmaceutical commercial in which he appears to play a part. Is he delusional? Dreaming? Before you have time to reach for Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” he wins a MacArthur Award, a so-called genius grant, and begins work on a monumental theater production. I want, he tells his therapist with baleful sincerity, to create something “big and true and tough. You know, finally put my real self into something.”
He succeeds in doing the first (the big, the true, the tough); it’s the self part that proves trickier. Among many, many other things, “Synecdoche, New York” is about authenticity, including the search for an authentic self in an inauthentic world. For Caden, creating something that will justify the genius award, which will quiet Adele’s mocking criticism and his own restless doubt, becomes all-consuming. Inside a fantastically, impossibly enormous warehouse, he begins rehearsing with dozens and then hundreds, thousands, of actors, directing them in separate lifelike vignettes. Ms. Williams’s Claire, the adoring young woman who earlier played Willy Loman’s wife, joins the new cast and soon marries Caden, Adele having abandoned that role. (“I’m famous!” Adele blurts out to Caden on the phone from Berlin before hanging up.)
There’s more — including Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden’s sweetest of sweethearts — so much more that you would need to recreate the film in its entirety to get it all in, which is precisely Caden’s own tactic. Inside the warehouse, he builds a replica of his world line by line, actor by actor, until fiction and nonfiction blur. Like the full-scale map in Borges’s short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the representation takes on the dimensions of reality to the point of replacing it. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard uses Borges’s story as a metaphor for his notion of the simulacrum, which probably explains why Caden, who has trouble naming things, considers titling his production “Simulacrum.” I don’t even know what that means, sighs Hazel.
You may giggle knowingly at that line, but the poignancy of this exchange is that Caden, who is so busy creating one world that he forgets to live in another, doesn’t seem to really understand what it means either. Mr. Kaufman rarely stops to explain himself, but like that simulacrum aside, he continually hints at what he’s up to, where he’s going and why. (Even Caden’s last name is a clue as to what ails him.) Mr. Kaufman is serious about seriousness, but he’s also serious about being funny, so he drops heavy weight (Kafka, Dostoyevsky) lightly, at times comically, and keeps the jokes, wordplay and sight gags coming amid the on- and offstage dramas, divorces, births, calamities, the fear and the sickness and the trembling.
Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver