From the writer of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. His life catering to suburban blue-hairs at the local regional theater in Schenectady, New York is looking bleak. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has left him to pursue her painting in Berlin, taking their young daughter Olive with her. Worried about the transience of his life, he leaves his home behind. He gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in New York City, hoping to create a work of brutal honesty. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a growing mockup of the city outside. The years rapidly fold into each other, and Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece, but the textured tangle of real and theatrical relationships blurs the line between the world of the play and that of Caden's town deteriorating reality.
"I guess it really is a bad title."
- Charlie Kaufman accepting his Independent Spirit Award, after presenter Aaron Eckhart butchered the pronunciation.
For the record, it's pronounced "si-nek-duh-kee." It is in fact a real, if infrequently used, word whose definitions are aptly fitting for the subject matter, even though the term itself is never spoken in the film. Sadly, audiences tend to avoid movies with titles they don't understand. Such was the case with the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, wild card screenwriter behind previous cult hits 'Being John Malcovich', 'Adaptation', and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. Despite being very much of a piece with his earlier scripts, 'Synecdoche, New York' floundered even in the art film circuit and barely earned back a fraction of its modest $21 million budget.
Of course, popularity has never been an accurate measure of artistic worth. 'Synecdoche' is Kaufman's most complex and ambitious work yet. The screenplay is as intricately structured and deeply layered with meaning and symbolism as anything he's ever written. As a director, Kaufman learned much from prior collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, and proves himself a master at wrangling a production of enormous scope and visual density.
Fans of his earlier movies know that a Charlie Kaufman story is not easily explained in a short review. The capsule summary goes something like this: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a hypochonriac theatrical director in Schenectady, NY (that's "skuh-nek-tuh-dee," a very real place). His marriage is falling apart, his daughter barely knows him, and his body is afflicted with a series of increasingly dire conditions (eyes that won't dilate, sores, pustules, seizures) that may or may not all be in his head. Nevertheless, Caden's production of 'Death of a Salesman' starring only young actors is deemed a rousing success that earns him a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "Genius Grant").
The grant allows him to move to New York City, rent an improbably enormous warehouse, and begin production on his magnum opus, a new play that encompasses every aspect of a man's life -- specifically, Caden's life. Inside the warehouse, he builds a scale replica of New York that contains every single detail and experience he lives. Naturally, the project assumes such proportions that it becomes his whole life, and thus must be reflected in the play. Within the constructed city is its own warehouse, with an actor playing Caden building his own scale replica of New York, which in turn has its own warehouse. How deep this rabit hole goes, only Caden can fathom.
Needless to say, this is pretty heady, surreal stuff. The film functions on dream logic. Time flows in unnatural fits and spurts. Caden spends decades staging a play that no audience will ever see, but it feels like mere days to him. As the world outside goes through turbulent, even apocalyptic changes, Caden's New York doesn't keep up with the times. The play remains a reflection of how he sees the world, so internalized and consumed by itself that Caden loses all perspective on his reality and his own identity.
The movie won't be everyone's cup of tea. This isn't passive entertainment. It requires work from an audience. After a first viewing, I don't feel at all equipped to analyze its deeper themes and meanings in more than a superficial manner. The film is at times overwhelming to watch. It has layers upon layers upon layers that will take many viewings to even catalogue, much less interpret. The tone is predominantly sad. This is a story about (among other things) loss, missed opportunities, and death. Which is not to say that it's depressing, although some may feel that way. For viewers who can connect with Kaufman's wavelength, 'Synecdoche, New York' is an exhilirating piece of art. I don't toss the word "brilliant" out lightly, but this is a film I just can't stop thinking about.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Synecdoche, New York' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which means that the studio has programmed one of their annoying Blu-ray promos before the main menu. Fortunately, they've spared us any forced trailers as well this time.
Unlike his earlier collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman chose to shoot his directorial debut in 2.35:1 scope widescreen. Especially in the later half of the film, Kaufman packs every inch of the frame with layers of information. Unfortunately, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is frustratingly soft, to the point where I found myself checking my projector's focus. Fine object detail is only fair. Although I haven't compared the disc to the standard DVD edition of this specific movie (to see how much worse that is), in general the Blu-ray often looks more like well-upconverted Standard Definition than like true High Definition.
How much of that is the fault of the video transfer and how much is the fault of the original photography, I can't say for certain. While soft, the Blu-ray doesn't exhibit many of the typical side effects of Digital Noise Reduction, such as smeariness or waxy facial features. It's just soft. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes is a seasoned pro who has lensed a number of beautiful movies ('Wild at Heart', 'The Ice Storm'), but there are quite a few shots in this film with genuinely poor focus issues. I'm just not sure what happened here. Perhaps Kaufman wanted a softer look, or perhaps his working method required some seat-of-their-pants shooting. Whatever the case may be, it's still a very visually striking movie in many respects. But it rarely has the detail or depth associated with a good high-def transfer.
As for the other aspects of its video appearance, this is a very dark film. Shadow detail is well resolved, though the high end of the contrast range looks a little flat. Colors are naturalistic and accurately represented. The transfer has no overt problems with edge ringing or other digital artifacts. If not for the softness, I'd be a lot more impressed with the disc as a whole.
The movie also has a very subdued sound design. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is extremely front-heavy. In fact, I hardly noticed much surround usage beyond some music bleed to the rear channels and one particular scene in the warehouse with a prominent echo. Forget about deep bass; it's not here at all. This is a quiet, dialogue-driven film with a low key musical score.
With that said, fidelity and clarity are both very good. The movie makes use of some interesting sound effects, which are well resolved. It may not be a showy sound mix, but it effectively supports the material and sounds pretty good overall.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features from the DVD edition. There may not be much in volume here, but those features present are typically strong in content.
Its tone of devastating sadness won't appeal to all viewers, but 'Synecdoche, New York' is an art film in all the best senses of that term. This is an uncompromising work of art, one that couldn't have been achieved in any medium other than film. The Blu-ray transfer doesn't exactly sparkle, and the supplemental package is a bit thin, but those interested will find it very much worth a purchase.