Everybody knows they're going to die, but not everybody understands what that means. You could have definitely counted me among the blissfully ignorant, until I saw Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," the movie Roger Ebert picked as the best film of the last decade. "Synecdoche" delivered unto me an existential kick in the head. I watched it on DVD, three times in a single evening because I became so engrossed, and I've never seen it again since. Looking back, I think it may have actually triggered something between a quarterlife and midlife crisis. What kind of movie could cause this kind of reaction? Read on.
"Synecdoche, New York" follows the life of a theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), from middle age up to the end of his life. He has a wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), who abruptly leaves him one day, taking their four-year-old daughter Olive with her to Berlin. His personal life in crisis, Caden throws himself into his artistic work. With the help of a MacArthur Fellowship, he prepares to mount a massive new theater production that examines the minutiae of his own life and failures, and is bent on replicating every detail of his existence in a gigantic warehouse. Caden develops feelings for Hazel (Samantha Morton), a ticket-taker at the local theater, but ends up remarried to his leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams). In no time, Caden finds himself facing a second marriage on the rocks, a daughter growing up into a stranger, and a play that is spiraling out of control and threatening to engulf his own reality.
Movies have been made about the end of life for as long as they've made movies, from Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow," to Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." It's one of those subjects that almost every major artist tries to tackle at some point, and that impulse has produced some masterpieces. However, these films can be a difficult watch. Being confronted by your own mortality is never a comfortable experience, but it is often an illuminating one. "Synecdoche" is not only uncomfortable, it's vicious. Everything that possibly can go wrong in Caden's life does go wrong. Every one of his ambitions fails. Every personal relationship either becomes damaged beyond repair or cut short due to circumstances beyond his control. He wants desperately to do something artistically important, but only succeeds in trapping himself in a gigantic echo chamber of his own neuroses. In the end, Caden winds up miserable and alone, and it's almost unbearably sad to follow his decline.
And yet it's mesmerizing too. "Synecdoche, New York" was the directing debut of Charlie Kaufman, who penned "Being John Malkovitch," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." I've read that "Synecdoche" started out as Kaufman's take on a horror movie, which would feature all the things that he was truly afraid of - failure, loneliness, alienation, and death. This certainly feels like his most personal story and his most unfiltered vision, stuffed to the gills with all matter of complicated visual symbolism, narrative paradoxes, and shifting frames of reality. One of my favorite images is Hazel's house, which is always literally on fire whenever we see it. She buys it, knowing full well that it will kill her eventually, but isn't that true of so many things in our lives? Or there's the way that time works in the movie, where Caden is astonished to find his estranged four-year-old daughter is suddenly a nine-year-old, and then a teenager, though barely any time has passed in his own frame of reference. Probably the most iconic visuals involve the warehouse, where the recreations of Caden's life proliferate into a series of nested universes, each with their own Caden and doubles of everyone he knows. One of the reasons I watched "Synecdoche" three times in quick succession is because it's so densely packed with material, and there's so much to take apart and examine and interpret.
In the end, though, what really hit home for me were the film's most basic, cautionary messages. This is what could happen if you don't pay attention to your loved ones. This is what could happen if you get too wrapped up in your own, selfish head. Life is finite and goes by much faster than you think it will. There are mistakes that cannot be fixed, and absences that can never be made up for. You only get one chance at this so don't screw it up. I sat up half the night thinking about the closing monologue, and that final, devastating meeting between Caden and Olive. I still find it hard to believe that such an uncompromising, thematically heavy film was actually made, the way Hollywood is these days, and that such an amazing cast was assembled for it. Hoffman's perfect as the disintegrating Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton was never more dowdy or more lovable. And I haven't even mentioned Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan, who all do wonderful work.
"Synecdoche, New York" is not an especially entertaining film, is far from perfect, and often comes across as self-obsessed to the point of cannibalistic, but it is nothing less than masterpiece. I'm a little worried that Charlie Kaufman hasn't done anything since. If simply watching "Synecdoche" gave me an existential crisis, I can't imagine what writing and directing it must have done to Kaufman.