Dave Eggers called his 2000 memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and if that title is meant to be ironic, all I can do is apply it to Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York,” with the caveat that as a subtitle, 1) it doesn’t begin to do the film justice, and 2) it’s not close to being ironic enough or clever enough to fit Kaufman’s creation, which means he would never consent to its use. But I’m just a simple mortal and at this moment I can’t come up with anything better. As Manohla Dargis wrote in her NY Times review, “To say that Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.” Absolutely.
Why bother with a subtitle, anyway? The film’s title says it all, although I had to look up the word “synecdoche“ to understand what it means: “A figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage).” If that definition is difficult to parse, fair warning that it’s easy compared to the film. It’s also completely accurate – there isn’t a better summary for this movie than that definition.
I watched Synecdoche, New York with a sense of wonder and of being swept along for a ride – once in a while I burst out laughing and more than once I choked back tears, all the while knowing I was only getting what was closest to the surface. It confounds one’s expectations and delivers far more than what we ever thought we wanted: it is “difficult,” it is “cinematic,” (it’s beyond cinematic – it opens up your consciousness in a way that only recreational drugs might otherwise), and it is unquestionably a masterpiece. Fair to say, also, that it is the most life-affirming movie about despair ever made.
Kaufman’s dialogue is perfect throughout, and can’t possibly be as rich out of context. I chose a single exchange that captures some of what I love about this movie: “You’re just perfect.” “I’m a mess. But we fit.” The meanings and jokes and deeper meanings all pile on top of each other until the viewer is dizzy and befuddled – this isn’t a movie for those who need to always understand what’s going on. You think you get it, but another scene or even your own recollection suggests another meaning. And they both work, and suggest a third meaning. And so on. Even now, bits and pieces continue to expand in my mind, for example: Philip Seymour Hoffman (brilliantly) plays Caden Cotard, the film’s central character as “the part put in for the whole.” As I turned his name over in my mind, the letters rearranged themselves and offered still more clues: Dance. Actor. (And so on.) See this movie.