I told WBOC Sports Anchor Scott Abraham the title of this film. He thought I said it was Schenectady, New York, the city of about 60,000 that's just a few miles north of Albany, former headquarters to General Electric, and hometown to basketball coach Pat Riley and actor Mickey Rourke. When I bought a ticket for this film at the Ritz East in Philadelphia, in the box office window was a pronunciation guide. The name was pronounced SI-NEK-DUH-KEE.
I'm used to attending films with bizarre titles that are difficult to speak let alone spell. I appreciate a good challenge linguistically and cinematically every now and then. The general public, however, might be curious as to what Synecdoche, New York is before plopping down nine bucks or so for it.
What does synecdoche even mean? The answer to that probably won't provide you with much but a faint recognition of a reference the main character makes toward the end of this film. Could it be that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, in his directorial debut, saw the similarities between synecdoche and Schenectady and merely wanted to do a play on words? A synecdoche is basically a metaphor, which is itself a play on words.
First, if you know the name Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), then you're already way ahead of the game. Kaufman has been the craftsman behind some of the strangest, cinematic experiences anyone has ever seen in the past decade. Usually, his stories revolve around men who live in their own heads, men who mess with their own or enter the minds of others.
This film is not that much different, yet this one may be the most confounding. Of all of Kaufman's scripts, this one probably lacks the most plot. Kaufman in lieu of that drags us along the middle age and eventual elderly deterioration of Caden Cotard, played by Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Cotard is a theatre director who starts off with a revival of Death of a Salesman. After Cotard's wife leaves him, he becomes inspired to produce and direct a play based on his own life. The play, however, never opens. It apparently stays in production for years. It grows and expands but never becomes complete until it no longer is just a small part of Cotard's life, until it literally becomes his whole life.
Some of the funniest moments in the film come when Cotard is directing scenes from his life, especially when they're scenes starring Cotard's current wife and actress Clair, played by Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams. She is at first an adoring fan and supportive wife, but even she starts getting frustrated with the stage Cotard has made of their lives.
The real scene stealer, though, is Tom Noonan who plays Sammy, the extremely if not creepy method actor hired to play the role of Caden Cotard in the play Caden Cotard is directing. Sammy looks nothing like Cotard. He's much taller and balder, but he dresses like him, talks like him and matches his mannerisms almost perfectly. It gets to the point where the two share the same thoughts. We learn that Sammy was Cotard's stalker and Sammy announces that as the reason why Cotard should hire him for the role.
It's like when Sarah Palin met Tina Fey or Hilary Clinton met Amy Poehler. But, imagine Palin or Clinton having those two actresses following them around constantly. Not only that, Cotard leaves his house to go to work on a stage that's an almost exact replica of his house, surrounded by people acting out scenes from his life. It's odd.
Kaufman certainly gets the award for oddest movie of the year. The oddities certainly don't end there. Almost every character acts in an odd manner. At times, it begs the question. Are these people even real?
Samantha Morton (In America and Minority Report) who plays Hazel, the box office girl, and, Hope Davis (American Splendor and The Secret Lives of Dentists) who plays Madeleine Gravis, Cotard's therapist, float in and out of Cotard's life, saying and doing the most oddball of things. They are things that will have you giggling or scratching your head.
Scratching my head was what I was doing at closing credits, but as I went back and started thinkign about it, it dawned on me that this film was rather brilliant. If for nothing else, its strangeness was the compelling factor.
Despite suffering from various ailments, be it seizures or restless leg, Cotard attends funeral after funeral without himself dying. You see a naked man emerge from a basement of a house that remains on fire for years but never burns down. You have microscopic paintings that are the most detailed you'll ever see and a theater large enough to house an actual-size replica of a whole city. This is another weird Charlie Kaufman film you must see.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.