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April 27, 2009 | by  | in Film |
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Synecdoche, New York

It’s often said that true art is about trying to represent the human condition, pinning it down and exposing it to the world in a series of perfectly-executed images or chords. As such, the cultural marketplace is filled with pretentious imbeciles and their perfectly douchey works, and none of them coming close to achieving their lofty goals. This plague of wankery makes all the more precious the arrival of something that actually comes close to conquering that most insurmountable of goals, and that something, at least for now, may well be Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, Synecdoche, New York.

My opening paragraph may give you the impression I completely understood the film. I’m writing this review eight hours or so after seeing Synecdoche for the first time, and aside from a vague idea of the themes tackled and a mental slog through each and every symbol and motif contained in the film’s 118-minute running time, I’m quite lost as to what I actually watched.

Kaufman’s tale of a theatre director, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving a characteristically monumental performance), who spends three decades working on a budgetless, limitless theatre work about death, life, and everything in between, is at once a philosophical text, a quietly devastating character piece and a piece of nightmarish meta-fictional genius. It’s ambitious, brave, honest, detailed, powerful, emotional, odd—it’s like Kaufman took every adjective in the dictionary and threw them into a blender with the works of Kafka, Proust, Nietzsche, Miller, Magritte, Lynch, Ozu, and other names that both showcase my pretentiousness and accurately describe just how deep and initially impenetrable this film is.

Kaufman’s writing is top-notch, multi-layered, intricately detailed and incredibly captivating. He melds existential musings on life, death and relationships with a vicious streak of black comedy and some genuinely heartfelt and saddening character work. The man at the centre, Caden, is miserable because he focuses too much on himself and worries too much about what’s wrong with him, and the women around him both despair at this (most impeccably realised in Michelle Williams’ Claire) and exacerbate it (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s prize bitch Maria being the best example).

Kaufman’s direction is stellar, and the beautiful, understated aesthetics work perfectly with the script. Meanwhile, the script indicates an increasing maturity in his writing—the meta-antics of Adaptation and the aimless misanthropy of Being John Malkovich are still somewhat present (unlike his zenith, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but Synecdoche is Kaufman’s most developed, layered work yet. Just don’t expect to understand it after the first viewing.

Or the second.

Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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