Stream of the Day: ‘Synecdoche, New York’ Is the Ultimate Primer for Charlie Kaufman’s Next Movie

Ryan Lattanzio
·7 min read

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“Everyone is disappointing the more you know someone,” says Catherine Keener’s Adele Lack (what a name!) early on in “Synecdoche, New York.” She says it with a shrug, as she prepares to turn off the lights on her marriage to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard. By the end of Charlie Kaufman’s mind-melting, soul-shattering masterpiece from 2008, you do feel like you know all of these people and the world they live in, but none of it is disappointing.

“Synecdoche, New York” is stuffed with vivid characters, and overflowing with the feeling of watching life pass by: Hoffman’s all-time performance as a misanthropic hypochondriac obsessed with sifting through the ruins of past relationships; Keener’s painter of miniatures; Michelle Williams’ bubbly ingenue; Hope Davis’ lusty and useless couples’ counselor, and Dianne Wiest’s heartbreaking version of Caden recast as a lonely housekeeper. It just happens to be life reconfigured as a searching free-fall into the creative process, always limping in circles — and here used a metaphor for what it means to build a life, from beginning to end, restless until you die.

With “Synecdoche, New York,” screenwriter Kaufman pivoted to directing for the first time, and proved he was no one-off behind the camera again in 2015 with the animated “Anomalisa.” His next movie as a director will be the adaptation of Iain Reid’s horror novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” headed to Netflix but still undated. (The studio has confirmed to IndieWire that it is still coming later this year.) The movie version will star Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis in roles that, well, once you read the book, become indistinguishable from one another even if they’re supposed to be four different people. That’s a lot like “Synecdoche.” All the characters, as distinct and defined as they each are thanks to an enviable lineup of actors — Emily Watson! Samantha Morton! Jennifer Jason Leigh! — form a kaleidoscope made of pieces of Caden’s psyche.

It’s hard to talk about the novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and its dizzying structure without spoiling its many tasty surprises, but know that Reid’s terrifying scream into the void is firmly fixed in Kaufman country. In other words, it’s very much the stuff of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a lurching portrait of a mind disintegrating, or even “Adaptation,” which turns the creative process into a neurotic condition. Initially the story of a young woman on a dark road trip barreling through the middle of nowhere to meet her boyfriend’s parents, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” rips the rug out with tortured glee, morphing into something much darker, grimmer, and sicker, and it takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to extremes.

“Synecdoche” is similarly governed by an unreliable narrator, in this case the playwright Caden Cotard, whose world shifts and folds into and out of itself after his wife (Keener) takes off with their small daughter, and he sets off to work on what is inarguably the most ambitious play of all time: a massive recreation of his life and the people in it, all staged inside a warehouse that’s the most colossal venue this side of Cinecittà Studios. The line between fiction and reality is fragmented, and then erased entirely, as it becomes impossible for both Caden, and the audience, to distinguish between what’s the play, and what’s real life — and if there’s even such a thing, in the slippery world of this movie, as real life at all.

In the novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the narrator is actively creating a story in her mind that spirals out of her control; a la “Synecdoche, New York,” it’s like you’re watching the creation of this drama in real time, shapeshifting from one thing to another with dazzling dynamism. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a very dark affair, and even bleaker than “Synecdoche, New York,” which at least has plenty of grimacing laughs, even if they do hit like arrows in the side. (“I have blood in my stool,” a sickly Caden tells Adele in the middle of the night. “That stool in your office?” she rasps, half-awake.) Both “Synecdoche” the movie and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” the novel use their respective mediums to try and parse the experience of mental illness and existential anguish, demolishing storytelling conventions to put you in the front seat of what it feels like to lose your mind.

For many, “Synecdoche, New York” remains a gloomy ride, as Caden experiences nonstop pain and longing, with no hope waiting at the end of an endless dark night of the soul. A deflated marriage with no closure, an estranged daughter who turns into a stripper who hates him, a probably hallucinated MacArthur Genius Grant squandered on a play going everywhere and nowhere at once, but mostly nowhere. It’s all wretched. But revisiting the movie now, this aching and brain-blowing masterpiece actually turns out to be a joyous celebration of life, and not a self-pitying dirge, as Caden spins his tragedies into a cracked monolith that, while unfinished, is at least true and honest and brimming with the mystery of life’s unsolvable problems.

But don’t let me convince you. “Synecdoche” was Roger Ebert’s favorite movie of the 2000s, and his beautiful words on what the film meant to him are impossible to top: “Charlie Kaufman understands how I live my life, and I suppose his own, and I suspect most of us. Faced with the bewildering demands of time, space, emotion, morality, lust, greed, hope, dreams, dreads and faiths, we build compartments in our minds. It is a way of seeming sane.”

When Caden pitches his idea for the play to a rapt audience of players who have no idea what they’re in for — which is to say, decades of putting on a show that will never be finished — Claire (Michelle Williams) exclaims with the ditzy sincerity of an overeager actress who’s surely never read her Dostoevsky: “It’s everything! It’s ‘Karamazov!'” As ambitious as such an impossible thing might be to try and achieve, it’s exactly what Kaufman did with “Synecdoche, New York.” He packed all the meaning of life and death into one two-hour movie that in retrospect plays like a deathbed swan song, an artist at the end of his coil trying to get it all out on the page before the long goodnight.

Many artists spend their entire careers, and across many works, trying to capture life in all its hell and glory, but Kaufman managed to do so with a single film. It hums with melancholy, and doesn’t exactly hold up a sunny horizon of hope. But “Synecdoche, New York” is a reminder that, as the movie’s theme song “Little Person” proclaims, life is precious, every minute. And it’s more precious with Charlie Kaufman in it.

“Synecdoche, New York” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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