SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK directed by Charlie Kaufman (USA, 2008)

This is a movie about life and dreams but mainly it’s about death.

We all have dreams, both big and small. Some of them are realized, most are not.

What gives us the impetus to work through our personal bucket lists is the transience of existence and the knowledge that someday we will die, as will everyone we know.

Theatre director Coden Cotard has a big dream. He wants to stage a play about everything: birth, dating, family and death. Particularly the last of these since, as he puts it bluntly yet accurately, “we are all hurtling towards death, but here we are for the moment, alive”.

Cotard wants his production to stand as his legacy and demands that there must be no compromises. It should tell the brutal truth, warts and all – no limits, no filters. He prepares post it notes for each participant, a single fact that the actors must build upon to create a character. Quickly you get the impression that the concept is so vast that it is unworkable.

Preparations are hampered by his poor health and the dismal state of his relationships. By the end, the jury is out on whether he is a genius or a madman. Cotard is played by the late Philip Seymour Smith who brings a humanity and integrity to a role that could easily have been pretentious and irritating. It’s a virtuoso performance.

This is this first movie Charlie Kaufman directed after the acclaim he received as screenwriter of ‘mindfuck’ movies like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

He oversees the project as if it may also be his last, throwing so many ideas into the mix that it is frankly bewildering at times.

Part of the complexity derives from the way time is presented.  One moment Caton’s daughter is 4 years old, then she’s 11 and soon after she’s an adult. His wife leaves him for a trial separation that becomes permanent as he ages rapidly. It all has the disturbing quality of a waking dream or living nightmare.

This is a distinctive, challenging and wildly self-indulgent movie which like the fictional theatre production offers little in the way of consolation or compromise.

In the end Cortan is forced to concede that death is the ultimate leveler: “You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and you are slipping silently out of it”.

Sobering stuff but brutally true.

Related links:
Official website of Synecdoche, New York
Roger Ebert’s rave review.