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Sunday, 24 May 2009

Synecdoche, New York




Writer (and now director) Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) likes creating worlds within worlds – which is part of his film's appeal for those who like to think their way through a movie, as every time we sit down to watch any movie at all we're already entering another world. But with his first directorial project, he takes this conceit more literally than ever: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director in the non-New York City town of Schenectady who scores a "genius grant" that provides him with a large chunk of change he can do whatever he likes with. It turns out that what he likes to do with it is recreate New York City in miniature inside a New York City warehouse, while his cast also replicate the goings on of the wider world – and of Caden himself. Which all sounds interesting enough, apart from an awful lot of fairly grim scenes about Caden's bad marriage (Catherine Keener, once again cast as a sour grump, plays his first, real-world wife; Michelle Williams plays his wife in the play) and failing health, but after a while it becomes clear that this massive, ever expanding replication of the world outside is nothing more than a massive symbol of the world outside. The reason why symbols work is because they reduce something down to an essence; when a symbol grows to be the thing itself, there's not a lot of point to it anymore. Luckily there's a different point buried in there somewhere about the fragility of life itself, and for some viewers that'll be enough. For others, who might prefer a film that actually gets around to being about something after two hours, there's still a few funny lines and some decent performances to cast a flicker of light in the gloomy cavern in which Caden (and Kaufman) work.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #452)