Synecdoche, New York: A Surreal Film About Ordinary Life

Made by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York is a difficult yet wonderful film about the strangeness of existence. We look back...

NB: The following contains spoilers for Synecdoche, New York.

Caden Cotard wakes up with aching limbs to the sound of the television blaring, his four-year-old daughter yelling from the bathroom and his wife clinking around in the kitchen. Caden’s house feels small and cluttered, as though the walls are bearing down on him. The light is cold and rancid.

Based on this opening sequence, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York feels like a movie grounded in a particularly unvarnished kind of reality. The interiors aren’t the brightly-lit open spaces we’re used to seeing in Hollywood productions. The haircuts look conspicuously uncoiffed; faces are pallid and careworn. Characters chatter over each other, mumble, or talk at cross-purposes. But gradually, we see signs that the film’s reality isn’t quite as mundane as it initially appears: a cartoon on television seems to reflect Caden’s fatalistic state of mind. There’s a creepy guy outside, shadowing Caden’s movements. A bathroom tap explodes, striking Caden in the head: the kind of freak occurrence more fitting for a Final Destination sequel than a low-key film about an ailing theatre director.

Ad – content continues below

Then again, Kaufman isn’t the kind of writer who’d write a straightforward drama. His stories reliably take place in a world that feels like our own, but with the dreamlike sense that just about anything could happen. In Being John Malkovich, a puppeteer turned desk jockey finds a portal into the mind of the title’s esteemed actor. In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the changing relationship between a young couple is affected by a machine capable of erasing memories.

Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s first film as a director as well as writer, is a tough beast to negotiate. From its title on down, Synecdoche refuses to conform the conventions of typical storytelling; its plot evolves rather than builds, establishing thematic ideas but leaving specific meanings for its audience to interpret. It’s a brave film, for sure; the success of Kaufman’s earlier work in the 2000s must surely have resulted in all kinds of mainstream opportunities, yet he chose instead to make a movie as uncompromisingly personal as Synecdoche.

Like Adaptation, Syncdoche is partly a relationship drama, and partly about an artist attempting to make something that seems constantly out of reach. In this instance, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) uses his financial freedom to make the most original play ever staged: a version of his own life performed with actors. Seemingly obsessed with authenticity, he purchases an unfeasibly huge warehouse in Manhattan, into which he funnels dozens of actors cast as himself, his loved ones and even strangers outside his immediate orbit.

Years roll by, and both the cast and the sets they inhabit grow to absurd size, until the interior of the warehouse begins to look like a city itself. Caden, meanwhile, seems no closer to figuring out what, exactly, it is he’s making; his play hardly seems like a play at all, but something closer to a colossal art installation. 

Time and mortality are a constant thread through Synecdoche; indeed, the way the film’s cut, with scenes flowing into each other with few establishing shots, leaves us experiencing time as Caden experiences it: rolling by like a stream. Early in the movie, there’s a subtle joke in which a doctor tells Caden to make an appointment with an opthalmologist. A couple of scenes later, and Caden’s sitting in the opthalmologist’s office, where a calendar on the wall reveals that approximately three months have passed. “Thanks for getting me in right away,” Caden says  – a quip so wry that it almost passes unnoticed. 

Synecdoche is filled with moments that play with the notion of time in similar ways. A cut from Caden working on his play in the warehouse to another scene might imply that only minutes or hours have passed, but then we notice the date on a newspaper which reveals that years have gone by. Kaufman’s film is locked inside Caden’s solipsistic and even claustrophobic worldview; that of a middle-aged man whose perception of time changes as he grows older. Caden’s overweening fears about his health and his theatre work are so all-encompassing that the other people in his life walk in and out like the characters in his plays. A persistent cough suffered by his first wife Adele (Catherine Keener) foreshadows a more serious illness she’ll succumb to later in life, but Caden doesn’t even notice it. Nor does he notice that the younger woman he has a difficult relationship with, Hazel (Samantha Morton) lives in a house that is perpetually on fire.

Ad – content continues below

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is so gentle in the lead role that the effects of Caden’s self-absorption are initially easy to overlook. Later in the film, he becomes so consumed by his theatre project that he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the increasingly dystopian-looking Manhattan developing outside; there are even suggestions towards the end that a civil war has broken out within his own play, as his vast set is shown strewn with dead bodies. 

With images and characters as spiky as this, it’s perhaps inevitable that Synecdoche divided opinion when it appeared in 2008. Kaufman doesn’t hold the audience’s hand through his meandering drama, but then, he doesn’t exactly make things easy for himself, either; like Caden, Kaufman sets himself the task of making a movie that only grows in scale as its narrative unspools. The cramped house of the opening scene is later replaced by unfeasibly vast sets in a warehouse; outside, a giant airship patrols the sky like something out of Blade Runner.

Through his oblique, surreal images, Kaufman appears to be driving at a sentiment he brought up in Adaptation. “What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens,” the film’s fictional version of Kaufman says, “where people don’t change and they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved…”

Again, this is something Kaufman attempts to express through Caden, and Caden, in turn, tries to express in his play: to create a story that prods at the truth of human existence rather than spinning a comforting myth. Let’s face it, you’re far more likely to see violence in a movie than someone concerned about their own bowel movements, because honest depictions of everyday human activities are generally considered to be less palatable to audiences than, say, a story about someone bloodily avenging the death of their dog. 

In Synecdoche, we see Caden gradually altered by time – his failing health and his receding hair – but epiphanies are few and little is resolved. As in Adaptation, Kaufman contrasts this painful, introspective form of creativity with other characters who draw a sense of completion from their work. Caden’s wife Adele is an artist who paints increasingly tiny canvases that have to be viewed through a lens to truly appreciate. Unlike Caden, who seems to think that the only way to be truthful about existence is to make something huge and all-encompassing, Adele finds solace – and huge artistic success – in cutting the world down to size. It’s an attitude which recalls one of Kaufman’s lines in Adaptation:

“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the down to a more manageable size.”

As Adele disappears off to Berlin and a life of wealth and respect as a painter, Caden becomes increasingly immersed in the soup of his own neuroses. It’s as though the financial freedom offered by the MacArthur Fellowship – the real-life “Genius Grant” offered to  artists, scientists and other academics – causes him to sink into his personal anxiety rather than exorcise it as pure self-expression. The small, cluttered world he’d created for himself as a 40-year-old at the start of the film has, by its end, expanded to the horizon, but still feels as cold, hostile and impenetrable as it ever was.

Ad – content continues below

If Caden is afforded any revelation at all, it comes right at the end, where his ill health means he has to hand over the job of directing his play to an actor, Millicent (Dianne Wiest). Caden therefore becomes an actor in his own play, with Millicent feeding instructions to Caden via an earpiece. It seems to be here, finally, that Caden might find some of the answers he’s been searching for. 

“You realize you are not special,” Millicent says softly as Caden, old and hunched, shuffles through the city he’s made and lost. “You’ve struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter; everyone is everyone.”

Maybe this is the comfort Caden finds at the end of his life. Having battled for decades to make sense of existence by laying his psyche out on a stage, he comes to belatedly realise that fulfilment and comfort come not from within, but from without – the relationships we forge with people, the moments we share, the memories we leave behind.  

Synecdoche, New York is a melancholy and sometimes frustrating film, but also one densely packed with possible meanings. One writer sees it as a crypto zombie movie; another suggests that the entire film takes place in Caden’s mind a few seconds before his death.

That Kaufman’s film has invited so much thought and analysis is a testament to how resonant it is, even if audiences didn’t exactly turn up in huge numbers when Synecdoche first came out. Kaufman’s work has never been easy to pigeonhole – except under the vague term ‘postmodern’ – but then, that’s partly why Synecdoche is such a compelling film. Caden’s a flawed character, for sure, but he’s only a reflection of how flawed we all are as a species.

One of the keys to understanding the movie might be found in that strange title: a synecdoche is something small that can resemble a greater whole, or something large that can stand in for something small. And that seems to be what Caden is: for better or worse, he’s all of us, shuffling through life, trying to make sense of the world through all its absurd twists and turns, making mistakes, trying and failing to make amends. He’s selfish, imperfect, incomplete, yet ultimately, far from a bad person. He’s just human, that’s all: a small part of a greater whole, the same as you, me, the dentist down the road or a taxi driver in a city on the other side of the world.

Ad – content continues below

To paraphrase Dianne Wiest’s character, “Synecdoche, New York is everyone’s experience. Every single one.”