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Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers:
An Excursion Into the American New Wave
by Derek Hill
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Synecdoche, New York"

syn'ec'do'che ---- Pronunciation[si-nek-duh-kee] -noun- Rhetorical.
(Rhymes with but has no connection to Schenectady).
~ a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special, as in ten sail for ten ships or a Croesus for a rich man. [Origin: 1350-1400]

This definition may help to clarify this surreal film adventure that screenwriter and first-time director Charlie Kaufman thrusts us into with the bewilderment that comes with his mental territory (see "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind").

In what would function as a prologue to the story, theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) opens his staging of classic "Death of a Salesman" to smash reviews. For his unique approach to Arthur Miller's classic play (by using a younger cast than Miller imagined it. Cotard is a bag of worry and indeciveness but has no trouble accepting the accolades generated by his hit and, following that, the awarding of a "genius grant" of a large sum of money to promote future work for the stage without financial worries.

As he considers what that work might be, the so-far grounded reality of the story sprouts the seeds of surreality as the idea-less genius grapples with an as-yet unformed "next project" that will, hopefully, stagger the mind and fulfill all expectations. The trouble is, he hasn't a clue.

So, with his nice new mogul-size bank account, he sets about to acquire a huge warehouse for his workspace and builds a life-size replica of New York in it. He surrounds himself with a grand opera-size corps of presumably New York actors who show great reverence to every word that passes the lips of their newly minted master of the craft. Chief among them, sitting front and center, is blond-tressed Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), star of the Miller play and devoted idolator of her artist director hero.

Cotard is fitfully married to Adele Lack, the mother of his child, and a reknowned artist of miniature paintings. She's about to shake the ground under our hero by informing him that that trip to Berlin that they both were going on if off... for him! But, she'll be back soon enough. Yeah. Still, not to worry because he's been carrying on a flirtation with yet another idolator, only this one has physical consummation on her mind. She's the boxoffice girl Hazal (Samantha Morton) whose desire turns into action at the mere suggestion that he might be ready to get into bed with her. When he finally does... well... it doesn't turn out according to her script.

What it is about this guy that makes him so attractive to women would be hard to explain except that almost all of them aren't women of the normal kind... they're either actresses or otherwise in his employ! They adore creative success, fame, power, etc., proving that a king of Broadway emits a very powerful pheromone, a musky magnetism. Before such a man those in the profession are prone to prostrate themselves before the altar of their art and his wisdom. He is the key to the unlocking of their instrument of expression and the adoration of the masses.

Years pass, and the play has become about themselves, as they improvise on their lives which, as years pass, becomes more and more like the time of their youth. Some are aged; some aren't--but before the epic is over, Claire Keen and Hazal will be joined by cast member/lover Tammy (Emily Watson), brought in to "play" the aged Hazal. Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) who has been, unnoticed, dogging Cotard's life who now convinces Cotard that he can "play" the part of Cotard.

Having not yet given up on restoring his family, he travels to Berlin Olive in order to find the now completely estranged Adele and plead for his family's return. He instead finds Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Adele's friend and possible lesbian lover, who flees from him but leads him to Olive, now grown up to be a sex worker.

The same affect he has on women of his craft spills over to his therapist Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis) who, behind the prim facade and the pushy purveyor of her own health books, lies a passion for Cotard she expresses with cheap abandon.

If things aren't already strange, with characters marrying and divorcing, overseeing and passing judgement on actors performing them, committing suicide and living in burning apartments, Kaufman isn't done with you and you'll have to see it for yourself to filter its meaning and feel its effect on your comprehension.

Beyond the sensual and the sensibility, there is the acting and the acting corps. The ladies corralled within Kaufman's framework of increasing distortion and hopelessness lies Keener, Morton, Williams, Davis, Jason Leigh, Weist... doing their bit for the challenge. Nothing wrong here with the array of talent, aided and abetted by Frederick Elmes exemplary cinematography and suggestible music by Jon Brion.

Get it now!
The DVD
The Blu-ray Edition DVD
The Soundtrack

A clue to comprehension is in the title. The cardboard city is where the specific works as a standin for the general or the general for the specific. Put another way, the whole, here, is used for the part or the part is used for the whole. Get it? Can we get you anything? A dramamine? A wake-up pill? A connection to NASA? A semester at MIT?

Don't stress yourself. There aren't necessarily clear meanings in this test tube of multi-dimensional surreality. If you share a taste for Kaufman's bizarre formulation of human and theatrical experience you will appreciate his mixture of illusion with failure, the unkept promise of genius, the residue of defeat, disappointment and melancholy. And, it's a comedy.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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This was absolutely the worst movie I have ever seen in my entire life. Ever, ever, ever. Without a doubt. I wanted to kill myself so I could leave.

                                                           ~~ Fred D. 
[Ed. note: Does it sound like Fred is blaming me for not hating the film as much as he did?]



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Emily Watson (foreground), Samantha Morton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan
Overlooking the actors playing them.

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