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Sony Pictures Classics

Solipsistic journey

Movies | Synecdoche loses its viewers on its way to self-discovery

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

From the Oxford English Dictionary, 5th ed.: "synecdoche-noun. A figure of speech in which a more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one, or vice versa."

One example might be the word wheels in reference to a car ("check out my wheels, yo"), or picture in reference to a movie ("the new Charlie Kaufman picture is really pretentious"). And lo and behold, we've found a use for the term already: the new Charlie Kaufman picture, Synecdoche, New York is really pretentious-a solipsistic journey inside the decaying soul of a struggling theater director named Caden Cotard (a valiant Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Cotard suffers constantly, whether he's dealing with pustules on his face or a listless wife (Catherine Keener) about to leave him. Then, at the nadir of his misery, he wins a MacArthur "genius" grant-half a million dollars to do whatever he wants. Naturally, he chooses to make a gigantic play about his own life.

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And, because the movie, rated R for nudity and general vileness, is so deeply disagreeable, it would make me extremely happy to end this review right here by saying that the film is utterly without merit.

But that's not actually true. Kaufman is an interesting filmmaker, and his forays into himself-his favorite subject-have been fascinating in the past, especially the wonderful Adaptation. Here, Cotard is not much fun at all, but his total immersion in his own detailed misery gives rise to something unexpected: a sympathy for the people around him. Cotard, despairing of "the notes given to me by my God!" as he puts it to his cast, eventually comes to humane and even moral conclusions, but by then it's too late.

He's shut himself off from the world for so long that whatever's going on outside the set (it sounds like a war at one point) has rendered his insights moot and impotent. Like Kaufman himself, Cotard has taken so long to glean any insight from his suffering that he loses his audience along the way.

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