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Review: Synecdoche New York

October 27th, 2008 9:52am EDT | Simbarashe By: Simbarashe
Synecdoche New York I'm inclined to think that "Synecdoche, New York" is one of the most fantastically depressing films made in the past several years. By that, I don't mean that it's a tear-jerker (it's not, quite), but it has a whimsical way of pulling out emotional strings, much in the way that Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love" did. Make no mistake, Charlie Kaufman (the writer of "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") has a shtick, a sort of Gabriel Marquez way of turning out extraordinary details from otherwise ordinary lives. If you become famous and want an Oscar-worthy biopic made about you, he's probably the right man for the job. But for characters that don't really exist, this can be somewhat of a problem.

"Synecdoche" is, in all of its spiraling splendor, a two-hour movie that feels much longer than it is. Whereas traditional stories start at a point, move around the conflicts within the plot and then return at a point of resolution that is similar in tone from where it started "Synecdoche" starts at a point and keeps on going forward-so far forward that after a while you completely forget where that start point was. In many ways this film is reminiscent of Anderson's "Magnolia", but whereas that movie kept upping the ante in terms of dramatic suspense, this one merely holds onto an emotion and decides to loop it over and over.

And it's a great shame, because Philip Seymour Hoffman leads an exceptional cast through the life of Caden, a playwright whose wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him to become a famous artist in Paris, taking their young daughter with her. After being awarded the MacArthur genius grant, he embarks on a project to recreate his life as theatre by literally rebuilding his town inside of a Manhattan warehouse. Along the way he remarries to the lead actress (Michelle Williams) from his last play, has a daughter who might be slower (and is clearly less brilliant) than his first daughter, and hires all of his previous actors to portray the different people in his life. As the city in the warehouse grows (everything this an exact replica of his real life, down to the layout of his kitchen), the play turns from being about events that happened in the past to being acted-er, rehearsed-in real time. Every actor now has another actor playing them, and everything that could go wrong in Caden's life surely does. If this sounds confusing, I should say that it is at least executed in a way that is understandable, but then it simply goes through the motions of reenactments for the second hour of the film (I haven't even talked about Hoffman's hypochondriac quirks), and by the time you realize that the film isn't going to go anywhere, you give up, stop caring, and simply hope that at some point the story does something to catch you off guard. It doesn't.

As he grows old, everybody in Caden's life eventually dies, and Kaufman is intent on showing us every death. In the back of my mind there was the belligerent thought that the repetitive motions of routine and death were not necessary, because at 90 minutes this could have been an exceptional film. Let's just say that it's a fantastic shame when filmmakers can't get out of their own way.

My Grade: C

Simbarashe
Story by Simbarashe

Starpulse contributing writer