Off-the-Wall Preview: Synecdoche, New York

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) as a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as "hand" for "sailor"), the whole for a part (as "the law" for "police officer"), the specific for the general (as "cutthroat" for "assassin"), the general for the specific (as "thief" for "pickpocket"), or the material for the thing made from it (“steel” for “sword”).

Keep that in mind while watching Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008).

Or don't. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the spectacular oddness of this film, the directing debut of the screenwriter who gave us Adaptation (2002), Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

Here Kaufman delivers a self-indulgent mope that also just happens to be a work of genius.

In this play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays morose theater director Caden Cotard, a resident of Schenectady, N.Y. whose physical and spiritual sufferings are so intense they’ve entered the realm of the ridiculous.

But apparently someone at the MacArthur Foundation shares Caden’s gloomy world view, for he receives one of those “genius” grants that will allow him to create an epic theater piece — "something big and true and tough."

Caden rents a Manhattan warehouse so huge it has its own weather and inside it erects the world’s biggest theater set – an entire city with buildings, streets...even a dirigible floating overhead. He hires hundreds of actors, designers, carpenters and others for a monumental project that will occupy him for the rest of his life – an improvised play with no beginning and no end based on Caden’s own life.

Caden spends his days wandering this faux city, watching actors pretending to be everyday citizens. Caden is a portrayed in the play by a bizarre actor named Sammy. Sammy impersonates Caden directing the play. Caden follows, giving notes on Sammy’s performance. Wait a minute...who’s directing who?

Caden falls for box-office girl named Hazel (Samantha Morton); she becomes such a constant in his life that another actress (Emily Watson) must be hired to portray her.

And this goes on with no end in sight.

"When are we going to get an audience in here?" an actor complains. "It's been 17 years."

Synecdoche, New York embraces a profound pessimism. But this isn't a depressing experience.

Rather there’s a kind of heroism in Kaufman's unwillingness to soften his existential outlook. And the film’s subversive, absurd humor frequently breaks through the miasma of angst and leaves us laughing helplessly.

“This is a film with the richness of great fiction,” wrote Roger Ebert, who chose it for the Library’s Off the Wall Film Series. “...The surface may daunt you. The depths enfold you. The whole reveals itself, and then you may return to it like a talisman.”

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.