Christopher Columbus clearly learned a lesson from working on the first Harry Potter films – a film doesn’t need to be slavishly adapted from a book to be successful. The Lightning Thief may be almost two hours long, but it mostly zips right along. Not only are entire subplots from the book eliminated, but several characters have been cut, too.
It’s been several hours since I walked out of the theater and I’m still wondering whutinthehighholyhellwuzzat?!? If you’ve seen any of the films that Kaufman wrote previously [Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind], then you know that is the usual state of mind that follows a screening his work. It’s just that Synecdoche, New York takes things to a whole other level.
Kaufman lulls us into a state of false comprehension by opening with the family of small time theatre director Caden Cotard [Philip Seymour Hoffman] as they go about a depressing day – a day that seems to last forever and ends with his artist wife, Adele Lack [Catherine Keener] and daughter, Olive [Sadie Goldstein] leaving for a show in Berlin. The two-week separation becomes seventeen years.
In the meantime, Caden, following on the heels of a Broadway success with Death of a salesman, wins a genius grant of quite possibly billions and mounts a play that he hopes will bold and true and a bunch of other artistic stuff. What he winds up with is a scale version of New York – peopled by actors playing all the people in his life [however slightly or parenthetically]. But that’s all window dressing.
Besides being a pun on Schenectady [the Cotards’ hometown], synecdoche is a word that can mean “a part that represents the whole.” In terms of Kaufman’s film, this can mean any number of things – Kaufman himself says that it means what you take out of it. For me, the film is about Life. It grows and shifts in variations on a theme even as members of Caden’s cast quit and are replaced – even though the new actors are doing the same things as their predecessors, they are different because they are different people, much as we are different people at various stages of our lives.
Life, and Death, are both bigger than we are, and smaller. We can be replaced, though never exactly. We can be reproduced, though never exactly, in any number of media. In an odd way, Kaufman seems – to me at least – to be saying that life, the universe and everything is what it is. That can be both a comforting thought and a harrowing one.