On February 2nd, Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away at age 46. An outpouring of respect and adulation followed, from both Hollywood and the public. It was to be expected for an actor of such consistent excellence in his craft. Whether it was a leading or supporting role, if he was in the cast, you knew that part would be executed almost perfectly.
Tributes sprang up in print and online, such as this video or Entertainment Weekly's profile of his life and career. Through each look back came glimpses at his many memorable roles, from early work on Law & Order to Oscar-nominated performances in Doubt and The Master to his Oscar-winning performance in Capote.
While it is impossible to fit every role the actor played into a short video tribute, I thought it unfortunate that one role was so left out: as theater director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Made only five years ago, the film was hardly seen by audiences, polarizing critics who either praised its multi-layered genius or lambasted its overly-weird pretentiousness.
I was one of the few who saw it in theaters. I was in college at the time, and had one course that examined modern film, which included class trips to the theater to see a new release. One of them was Synecdoche, and as it did with critics, it divided us as a class as well. Depending on who you asked, it was either the best or the worst film we'd seen that semester. I was one of the former, and after watching it dozens of times over the years, I'd have to say that it is my favorite film.
So perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I thought I'd try and shed some light to those who may have passed on it before.
At the helm of Synecdoche, New York is Charlie Kaufman. Known for his odd and original ways of telling stories, from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman had built up a solid reputation as one of Hollywood's most interesting writers, especially after his Oscar win for Eternal Sunshine. However, with Synecdoche, he got behind the camera as well, making his directorial debut.
During an interview, he elaborated on how he'd said that 'plays are alive and movies are dead':
"I love movies, I've always loved movies. It's been a big passion of mine my whole life. I just think there's a kind of one root way of making movies in this culture … and I think that, like anything, like any art form, the world opens up when you take that away, and you allow yourself to think in a larger and more creative way about the process.
"The reference to theater is that I wanted to try and create a way that, in my mind, you can view the same piece of film on different occasions and have different experiences with it, which is what I was referring to when I said you can watch a play five times and it's gonna be different every time because it's alive. (…) The movie's already set in stone. So what you can offer people, or at least what I've decided that I would like to try to offer people is the ability to watch this movie now, and then watch it in five years and have a different experience because you're a different person.
"I just think that's fun and that's what I want as an audience."
For those who love dissecting weird and offbeat films, Synecdoche is a treat. The film begins normally enough compared to Kaufman's previous work, with an underbelly of weird slinking beneath. The story moves fluidly through the everyday life of the characters, as Kaufman attempts to replicate a subtle dreamlike feel.
After Caden's wife leaves him, taking their daughter with her, he is awarded an artistic grant to stage his greatest work. Chastised earlier for his unoriginal choices, he decides to try something new: a massive staging of New York, with replicated buildings and rooms, filled with actors playing the parts of regular people, because 'every person is the lead in their own story.'
The film is soon turned over on its back, letting its freak flag fly. What started as a simple but depressing story soon becomes filled with:
Synecdoche is chock-full of symbols and motifs that can take a few viewings to fully digest, especially as it relates to each character and their relationship to Caden. It is also very meta, as Caden's desire to show the world something that is so brutally honest about life's ugly realities is achieved through the film itself. The story Caden wants to tell is the story Kaufman is telling, which is the story about Caden wanting to tell that story.
Many of Caden's issues have to deal with his unstable relationships with women, and the film is enriched with a great supporting cast: the underused Catherine Keener as his first wife Adele; the wonderful Michelle Williams as his second wife Claire; the dry-witted Hope Davis as marriage counselor Dr. Gravis; and the lively Samantha Morton as his one true love Hazel. Rounding out the rest of the cast is Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Robin Weigert as Olive, Caden's daughter who is taken from him and raised to believe that he abandoned her.
Anchoring the film, of course, is Hoffman as Caden. Known for playing characters mired in their own personal ugliness and vulnerability, he brings the same traits to his performance here. Obsessed with illness and death, Caden constantly suffers from many physical ailments, as well as his failed love life, estranged relationship with his daughter, and yearn to create the great masterpiece he feels hiding deep within him.
Synecdoche, New York is the culmination of Kaufman's earlier works, from the philosophical reflections of the self brought up in Malkovich, to the cyclical story told in Adaptation, to the dreamlike atmosphere of Eternal Sunshine. It is a film with a lot to chew through, something not often offered up at cinemas, with a smorgasbord of imagery and ideas and interpretations that have been discussed and dissected by other people smarter than I. From the screenplay to the direction to the acting, to even the beautiful score by Jon Brion, it's a shame that a film that can be viewed over and over with fresh meaning came and went in the blink of the public's eye.
If you're up for a break from all the superheroes and YA adaptations and other Hollywood fare, give it a try.