10 Nov

Chances are good you’ve never seen a movie quite like Synecdoche, New York.

First of all, about that hard-to-pronounce title. The film takes place (or at least part of it does) in Schenectady, New York, where Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is living a bleak existence and is convinced he’s dying. Eager to do something with his life before he goes (“That would be the time to do it,” Caden’s therapist tells him), he seeks to create a monumental theater piece that will document his existence and show that his life has meaning.

Now, according to, the word synecdoche is “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.”

So to that end, the play becomes intertwined with Caden’s life, and soon there are multiple actors playing the same role (in Caden’s life and in his play), and the play becomes a play within a play within a play, with scenes and lines of dialogue repeating themselves. Chronology is blurred, and you never know if you’re watching Caden’s reality or his alternate reality.

A film this bizarre could only come from one person, Charlie Kaufman, the writer of films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and here Kaufman does double duty as writer and director.

I’ll say this, and it’s not meant as damning with faint praise or a form of denial: Synecdoche is quite an ambitious, creative exercise. Parts of this movie are beautiful and poetic, or they feature Kaufman’s trademark dark humor, and others just make you throw your hands up and say “WTF??!!”

If you can stick with Synecdoche, it will reward you with observations about life, and how we’re all important. “There are millions of people in the world,” Caden says one, two, three, maybe four times in the movie. “None of those people is an extra. They’re all leads of their own stories.”

But I’ll admit, sticking with Synecdoche is not easy. It’s maddening and confusing at times, and it’s just not for everyone.

That said, I liked this movie — though I can’t really explain it, or explain why — so I’m giving Synecdochea B+.

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