Any movie that starts with the death of Pinter is sure to be a bummer, but then this is a Charlie Kaufman film, so it's at least a funny bummer. It's the first film he has directed as well as written. It also has something pretty close to my dream cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Dianne Wiest. If you added Brian Cox and/or Kate Winslet, I would be in paradise.
The premise is pretty simple, at first: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is miserable. His artist wife, Eddy (Catherine Keener), has made it perfectly clear that she hates him. She runs off to Berlin with their little daughter and a creepy friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), leaving Caden to cope alone with his dismal theatre productions, a crushing box-office girl named Hazel (Samantha Morton), and a fawning young actress (Michelle Williams).
Also, Caden is suffering from a long list of weird ailments, including seizures, cysts, and synaptic disintegration (is that a real thing?). He passes through a gauntlet of grumpy, indifferent doctors who can't help him. His body is shutting down, bit by bit. I assume this relates to the title, with each symptom standing for a sick part of Caden's psyche.
Nothing in his life seems to bring him much joy, not even being awarded the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant (a real thing), which allows him to rent a massive and decaying theatre that looks like an airplane hangar. He fills it with hundreds of actors, each instructed to act out psychodramas from their everyday lives, and constructs a realistic set that looks remarkably like the neighborhood surrounding the theatre. In fact, the theatre itself becomes part of the set.
This is where things get seriously bizarre. The play remains in a perennial state of rehearsal for the next 20-some years, with the set growing freakishly huge and increasingly realistic. Real characters age and die and are replaced by actors who also age and die (Morton's Hazel doesn't die, but is portrayed on the set by a Hazel played by Emily Watson). Caden opens a magazine one day to see his daughter, Olive, nude and covered in floral tattoos apparently done by his ex-wife's friend. Hazel moves into a house that is continually on fire, marries, has kids, gets divorced. Caden slowly grows to love her, but also marries the young actress and has another young daughter to whom he never grows attached. He so pines for Eddy and Olive that when Eddy returns to New York, he pretends to be her cleaning lady just so he can sneak into her apartment and clean her toilet.
Meanwhile, the set and the ever-changing cast of Caden's untitled play mushroom to monstrous proportions but never seem to coalesce into anything other than a big mess. Caden gets older, and sadder, and the people around him get older and sadder too. Though he seemed to be on the verge of death as a young man, he limps on into old age without much difficulty. In fact he seems healthier than the much older man who plays him on the set, a man who mimics him so perfectly that they enter into telepathic communication. Or something. To be honest, I have no idea what was going on in the second half of the film. I gathered that it's all about identity, the creation of self, aging, dying, and regret. The final half hour drags considerably, lacking the dark humour of the rest of the film, but the performances manage to keep it afloat somewhat. If there are any really deep insights in Synechdoche, New York, however, they slipped right past me. The message seems to be "getting old sucks, and you'll hate it, and you'll be filled with regrets and unfulfilled longings and unfinished masterpieces". Not exactly a chipper or edifying flick, but perhaps you philosophers out there will wring something from it that I'm unable to grasp.
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