Synecdoche, New York

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, and Emily Watson

Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Rated R


It was Charlie Kaufman, at the multiplex, with a mindfrak.

He’s made my head explode before, so he’s a repeat offender. Be on the lookout for this dangerous criminal. Other crimes include: knocking you out of your comfort zone, torturing your understanding of the border between dreams and reality, and following you home from the multiplex, lingering in your brain for days and weeks and forever.

Of all the breathtakingly audacious things Kaufman — screenwriter and, for the first time here, director — attempts with this astonishing and utterly unique movie, the first to note is this: He got away with giving it a title that no one can pronounce and hardly anyone knows what it means.

The pronunciation is like this: sin-NECK-dokey. Yeah, it kinda sounds like Schenectady (a city in upstate New York) and you need to know that to understand the beginning of the joke of it.

Because synecdoche is a literary term similar to metaphor, but not quite. Synecdoche is when a part of something stands in for the whole thing — like how when we say “a hundred head of cattle,” we don’t mean just their heads but their whole bodies, of course.

But — and here’s part of the mindfrak of this — it can also mean the opposite, when a word describing the whole of something actually means just a part of that whole … like how “society,” in certain contexts, actually means just “high society.”

I could joke and say that I don’t have to deconstruct the “New York” part of the title, but this is a Charlie Kaufman movie …


Kaufman’s stand-in for himself here is playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is living in Schenectady directing plays when he wins one of those genius awards, which comes with a ton of money and hence allows him to embark on his dream of creating a play that means something.

So he heads to New York City and buys an enormous warehouse in which to mount this grand production, which begins to take shape as he tells his cast that “we’ll start by talking honestly and out of that a piece of theater will emerge,” and around which further reality accrues like so much intellectual flotsam and jetsam as Caden begins to build a full-size replica of New York City within the warehouse.

Actors start to play real people and reenact the real life scenes happening outside the warehouse, some of which is also happening inside the warehouse. So an actor comes onboard to play Caden the director, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) his wife and stage manager, and so on. Eventually, of course, a replica warehouse must inevitably become part of the story, with actors playing actors playing actors.

It’s like putting two mirrors face to face with each other and seeing how their images infinitely regress.

It’s like seeing life as a theatrical work-in-progress, where there are always lines to tweak so they sound more natural and notes to take from the director on how best to replicate reality and make sure the emotion of a piece rings true.

But even the first image in the mirror, the “real” layer of Caden and his life, is a put-on. He’s suffering from a strange disease that is shutting down the autonomic functions of his body, so that, say, he has to consciously salivate, and cannot cry.

Not that he ever wants to cry. When he’s confronted with one moment at which you can tell, with no doubt, that his heart is surely breaking, he has to squirt artificial tears into his own eyes so he can weep over it. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry and it makes your head explode: Are our tears genuine tears, or are we only performing an emotion for ourselves, at the behest of the director who directed us to do so?

So we’re the first images in the mirror, then, us out here sitting in the theater, playing ourselves, analyzing our performances as we go? Life is theater and theater is life, and it’s not “all the world’s a stage” but “all the stage is a world”?

But then where’s the real reality? If we’re all in Caden’s warehouse, then what’s outside the warehouse?

That just occurred to me right now, as I write, and it makes me feel like I want to look over my shoulder and see what’s there, which is an awfully creepy feeling indeed.

This is like The Matrix except no one ever discovers they’re in the Matrix.

This is like a horror movie that gets more horrifying the more you think about it.

I should stop thinking about Synecdoche, New York, except I can’t.