To say that “Synecdoche, New York” is about dreams, or involves dream sequences, is to say a true thing that tells you absolutely nothing true about this movie. Myriad films and filmmakers have involved dreams and dream sequences, and they’re always basically the same: purple horses, opera houses, flowing robes of vivid red, etc. etc. etc. Trouble is, I, for one, have never had a dream involving strange colored equines or large halls with impeccable acoustics. I was starting to think that maybe I was alone and there was something terribly tragically wrong with my dream life, but here comes Charlie Kaufman and this great movie to reassure me. “Synechdoche” (repeat after me: sin –neck – duh- kee) is about dreams like the kind I, and perhaps you, dear reader, actually have.
The dreams belong to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a New York playwright/director who is pretty clearly a stand-in (or synechdoche, if you will) for writer/director Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is easily one of the most interesting and creative screenwriters of recent years, responsible for movies like “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” films that are fascinating even when they aren’t completely successful. Hoffman plays a gifted but insecure artist, haunted by his own potential and others’ expectations, terrified and obsessed with death, wondering if he’s capable of being a good husband and father as he watches his marriage fall apart in front of him. He’s sort of a serious, surreal version of Woody Allen.
The dreams start about twenty minutes into the film, but the transition from reality to dream is so seamless, one could argue whether it actually happens at all. Either way, it’s at that point that things stop making straightforward, logical sense, and everything that follows seems to be a reflection or extrapolation on the things that happened in that first twenty minutes. Hoffman directs a critically acclaimed production of “Death of a Salesman,” which his artist wife (Catherine Keener) pans. She leaves for Germany, taking their daughter with her but telling Hoffman at the last minute she doesn’t want him there. Ouch. He then wins a prestigious grant and begins work on his piece de resistance. All of that is real. Then the dreaming begins. (I think.)
Keener never comes back, though Hoffman is able to read his daughter’s diary, which she left under her pillow, so he can keep up with what’s happening to her in Germany. (If that sentence makes logical sense to you, read it again.) He begins a relationship with his pretty leading actress(Michelle Williams,) but it doesn’t take long for it to look just like his marriage. He feels like he ought to be in a relationship with his box office girl (Samantha Morton, who is incredible in the role) but can’t seem to make that happen. He becomes unable to salivate or make love. And the play, his life’s work, his attempt at literary immortality? Hoffman is so committed to honesty, gutsines, and truth, that he puts his own life on the stage. Which means he needs a big stage, and then a bigger one. Pretty soon he’s filled a whole warehouse with improvising actors. And, of course, there’s a play within the play. And a guy to play Hoffman in the play within the play. (That one’s easy to cast: a man who has been stalking him for years shows up at the audition, and, of course, is perfect.) Hoffman is looking for some kind of freedom, some kind of truth, but he doesn’t find it until he, himself, enters the play, in the part of someone else, taking direction from another director.
“Synechdoche” unfolds methodically, beautifully, with a kind of logic that defies reason but gives every bizarre turn of events not only the ring of truth, but a sense of inevitability. It feels like the opposite of a Russian doll: one layer piles onto the next, always expanding outward, always looking basically the same. It’s certainly a challenging movie; after two viewings, there are parts of it I still don’t understand (what’s up with the burning house?) but I am confident they have meaning and are understandable, and maybe next time through, I’ll get it. Hoffman is perfect and seems born to play Kaufman’s double; he makes this role seem like the one he’s been building up to for years. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is dour, somber and slow at times, but is the kind of movie you come back to; it’s certainly worth seeing more than once, and I have the feeling it’s one of only a few movies from 2009 that people will still be watching in 2029.
- if you’ve enjoyed Charlie Kaufman’s other movies.
- if you like multi-layered, thoughtful, and sometimes surreal movies.
- If you think the mark of a great movie is that it’s better than second time around
- if you don’t like navel-gazers, or movies about navel-gazers.
- If you dream of purple horses, opera houses and woman in bright red flowing robes.
- If you hate it when a critic calls a movie “challenging.” Life is challenging enough.