When we think of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman’s name comes to mind long before directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry-the screenwriter is just that distinctive, with each of these works ranking among the best of the last ten years. Given the insular nature of those three films, it’s unsurprising that Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut, takes place almost entirely within its main character’s mind. ?That it is all inside of his head can be confusing at first, but the key to the film is within the title: a synecdoche is “a figure of speech for which a part of an object is used to imply the whole object” (example: “set of wheels” describing a car)-and as with most other words, it has several sub-definitions which could also play into the meaning (it can also be a whole object being used to refer to part of an object).
In other words, Caden Cotard’s life is being used to state something about others’ lives, or vice versa. In the story, after receiving a MacArthur’s grant, Cotard attempts to build a life-size set of New York City. On the set, Cotard attempts to make the actors reflect various people inside and outside of his life (Tom Noonan and Emily Watson come to play Cotard and his mistress Hazel). As he spends more time inside of his art, the line between Cotard’s play and the “real world” blurs at a dizzying pace. ?
The most confusing element of the film is Cotard’s life prior to finding the set: his wife (Catherine Keener), who makes microscopic, highly impressionistic paintings (presenting a cerebral contrast to Cotard’s larger-than-life, imitative canvas), has taken his daughter and flown off to Europe. It’s easy to think that the bizarre events leading up to this are all “real,” but odd details such as Cotard’s avatar randomly appearing on the television screen suggest that his life outside of the set was completely written by him as well. Minute moments like this are everywhere: we think that Hazel is only played by Samantha Morton, but then it appears that she’s played by Watson (the set actress), then Morton again, then Watson and so forth. ?
If this review has ceased to make sense, that demonstrates Synecdoche’s impact. It jars us through all sorts of theories and opinions, and when the credits roll, whether or not we like it, one can’t be sure what to make of it. That’s not as bad as it sounds. Synecdoche’s opaqueness does present the con that not all of the movie can be made sense of-regardless of what the various scenes with Cotard’s therapist (the charmingly creepy Hope Davis) might be saying, one can’t be entirely sure what they contribute to the story. But these flaws are overshadowed by the work’s benefit: Rather than demanding repeat viewings, Synecdoche ultimately encourages them, containing enough humorous and surprisingly resonant moments to be continuously worthwhile. ? ?