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Film / Synecdoche, New York

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"Is everything okay?"
"Everything is everything."

Synecdoche, New York is a 2008 psychological drama film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman in his directorial debut, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a struggling theatre director trying to remain optimistic and creative in spite of his marriage collapsing and finding his life is ultimately meaningless.

Following his successful young-cast production of Death of a Salesman, Cotard receives a "genius grant" that gives him a nigh-unlimited budget, which he decides to use on a production that accurately depicts life. Cotard then tries to perfect his artistic vision over the space of several decades, all the while struggling to maintain a relationship with numerous women and come to terms with his mortality.

Especially notable in that the (relatively) basic plotline quickly turns bizarre when Caden hires an actor to play himself, which then extends to the people in his life, too; needless to say, things turn into a mash-up of Meta Fiction, Recursive Reality, Postmodernism and flat-out Mind Screw pretty fast. Would you expect any less from a Kaufman movie?

Provides examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: The script for the film shows the dates for each scene in the film. The opening scene is in October of 2005 while the film ends sometime in 2055.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Is Sammy in love with Caden?
    • With Adele and Maria and Olive, it's also unclear precisely where the lines are drawn.
    • Caden and others sometimes question his sexuality.
  • Ambiguous Gender: There is frequent suggestion that Caden might in some way be a woman.
    • Caden gets mistaken several times as Ellen, Adele's housekeeper. Caden and Millicent, Ellen actress, eventually swap roles in the play.
    • At one point, Claire mentions that Caden smells like menstrual blood.
  • Apocalypse How: Society collapses utterly over the course of the film, though we never find out how or why. It's a kind of existential joke, usually meditations on mortality have the message "You will die and the world will carry on, and you have to accept that," but in this case the world dies and Caden has to carry on, more bewildered than ever. By the end of the film Caden no longer leaves the warehouse, and it has become impossible to tell what condition the world is in outside.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: The MacArthur Genius grant seems to provide Caden with this. (At the time in the real world, it was a sum of $500,000 USD paid out in five annual installments.)
  • Black Humor: The story of the writer Caden's therapist tells him about is so outlandishly depressing and shocking that it shoots the moon and lands down on actually kind of hilarious, especially since she's so excited to talk about it that he can't say anything without being interrupted:
    Caden: I wanted to ask you, how old are kids when they start to write—?
    Therapist: There's an absolutely brilliant novel written by a 4-year-old. Little Winky by Horace Azpiaz.
    Caden: That's cute-
    Therapist: Oh, hardly. Little Winky is a virulent anti-Semite. The story follows his initiation into the Klan, his immersion in the pornographic snuff industry, and his ultimate degradation at the hands of a black ex-convict named Eric Washington Jackson Jones Johnson
    Caden: Written by a four-year-ol—?
    Therapist: -Jefferson.
    Caden: Wow. W-Written by a four-year-old??
    Therapist: Well, Azpiazu killed himself when he was five.
  • Captain Oblivious: Built into Caden as a result of his incredibly nervous and death obsessed mind. He fails to notice the extremely large tattoo on Claire's back, and in an earlier scene, he doesn't notice that he is passing brown urine while speaking to Adele.
  • Casting Gag: The actor playing Caden in the first rehearsal, where Claire is playing Hazel, is Stephen Adly Guirgis, best known as a playwright whose work has been directed many times by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Sammy appears in a few scenes before his role in the plot is established.
  • The Chew Toy: Caden.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: A very dark stripe.
  • Covers Always Lie: The British Blu Ray edition carries the blurb: "The Smash Hit Comedy of the Year!" While the film does have moments of Black Comedy and Surreal Humor, it's few and far between. And it's definitely not a comedy in the sense of The Divine Comedy considering it's end. And finally, the film wasn't even a hit considering its financial failure and polarizing critical reception.
  • Crapsack World: The world around the main characters progressively turns more and more into a dystopia culminating in an apocalypse. Nobody seems to notice.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Caden's psychiatrist recommends a brutal, controversial book about an anti-Semite that became famous simply because the author is a now dead four-year-old.
  • Depraved Homosexual: It's implied that Maria is this and has turned Olive into one.
    • Maria convinces Olive that Caden is one, much to his chagrin.
  • Doppelgänger: Played with in that although neither Sammy nor Millicent resemble Caden, they arguably do a better job at being him.
  • Downer Ending: Everyone in Caden's warehouse is dead, save for one woman. Caden dies when he realizes how to complete his life's work but just before he can even vocalize how to do so. The only silver lining is that he wasn't alone during his final moments.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Sammy is an omniscient observer who follows you everywhere, is only seen when he wants to be seen, knows all of your thoughts and feelings, genuinely cares about you regardless of your selfishness, and dies when no longer needed by Caden. He in all purposes is this universe's version of God. The fact his name is Sammy (translating from Hebrew to literally mean "Name of God") supports this.
  • Dying Alone: A common theme.
    Millicent: You realize you're not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone's experience. Every. Single. One.
  • Dying Reconciliation: subverted to the point of parody. Caden is summoned to his daughter Olive's bedside when she becomes terminally ill from all her extensive tattoos. Although he has been forcibly removed from her life for years against his will, Olive blames him for abandoning her, and insists he apologize for having a gay affair with someone named Eric (which... never actually happened). Caden does apologize and begs her forgiveness... which Olive refuses before promptly dying.
  • The Eeyore: Caden
  • Empathic Environment: The cartoon playing on Caden's television provides a foil to his inner monologue, starting out by talking about a particular virus that embeds itself in the mind and doesn't stop growing, reflecting his health scares and the eventual reality of his final work. When he laser-focuses on cleaning Adele's work room, the TV shows something else entirely; when he is finished, it goes back to the cartoon, which is singing a song about falling down and dying.
  • Existential Horror: The movie has a huge focus on the Real Life horror of our death being unavoidable and possibly happening at random, and time moving very fast, which can cripple someone's attempts at having meaningful relationships or finishing projects to leave a mark. Interestingly, the movie was originally envisioned as a horror movie.
  • Fanservice: So downplayed it borders on Fan Disservice. Caden finds a now-adult Olive working as an erotic dancer, gorgeous and with her whole body covered in tattoos. But the effect is turned heartbreaking by Caden's absolutely devastated reaction to seeing his daughter has grown up without him.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Caden worries excessively about his health (even going as far to search his own faeces for blood) but somehow manages to miss the fact he's pissing blood in one scene.
  • Foreshadowing: You can see Caden's double in the background even before he gets the MacArthur Grant.
    • When discussing his version of Death of a Salesman he explains his reasons for casting young actors as old people, including his desire for his audience to see the Dramatic Irony in knowing that one day the actors playing old people will eventually die themselves. By the end of the film, the cast have aged about 30 years. And we're shown the final scene of the play, which ends with death.
    • Almost all scenes that have Caden cleaning his house and Adele's apartment have Adele referring to him as Ellen (Adele's cleaner that he later swaps lives with). An early scene also has a 911 operator referring to him as ma'am.
    • When Caden starts scrubbing the house with his toothbrush, the TV has the ending where the elderly Caden walks through his destroyed set. The commercial for cancer therapy also briefly shows a young Ellen and her mother having a picnic, which later resurfaces when the plot explores her regrets.
  • Hope Spot: Caden finally finds fulfillment with Hazel only to lose her to smoke inhalation in the next scene.
  • Identical Stranger: The actors who play other actors. Mostly.
  • Ironic Echo: After Hazel breaks Caden's heart, he tries to jump to his death, but is prevented. Eventually, Hazel falls for Caden again, breaking Sammy's heart and causing him, who is playing Caden in the play, to jump from the replica of the same building.
  • Kavorka Man: Caden starts out fat and gets progressively uglier over the course of the movie, not to mention being a charismatic black hole. Yet he somehow manages to reel in girlfriends/wives played by Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and Emily Watson.
  • Meaningful Name: Caden Cotard is named after a psychological/neurological delusion that one has already died. Wife Adele has a Punny Name in that "Adele Lack Cotard" sounds like "a delicate art."
    • At one point, Caden buzzes apartment 31Y, and the surname of the owner reads Capgras.
    • Claire translates from french to mean "Clear", which fits with her purpose as a blank slate.
    • The name "Samuel" (or Sammy as he's known) translates from Hebrew to mean either "god listens" or "name of god" which fits with his role of an observer.
    • "Ellen" (the name of the house cleaner Caden swaps roles with) is Greek and translates to "Shinning light" or "Sun ray" which fits with the Hope Spot her role gives to Caden while cleaning.
  • Meta Fiction: The plot unfolds both as itself and as a play of itself, as well as itself as a play and a play of a play of itself.
  • No Ending: Caden's grand opus and his life doesn't so much end as stop. Maybe.
  • Noodle Incident: More like Noodle Apocalypse.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: A major point come the conclusion (but about everyone rather than the traditional hero-villain/good-evil comparison); Caden initially makes a point about how every extra is actually an individual, unique protagonist in their own story, yet by the end he discovers that regardless of individuality, everyone is the same when it comes to death and becoming old. A blatant example can be seen between Caden and Ellen, who, despite being a director and a cleaner respectively, become literally interchangeable due to their similarities.
    Caden: I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. Try to imagine that many people! None of those people is an extra. They're all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.
  • One-Scene Wonder: Dianne Wiest has only ten minutes of screen time. She has major billing. These are related. invoked
  • The Omniscient: Sammy claims to know everything that is to know about Caden because he has been following him non-stop for 20 years (by the time he finally gets to talk to him) but he also apparently knows everything there is to know about everyone in Cadens life, even people that have been absent from it for decades, such as when he casually gives Adele's New York address despite it being a closely guarded secret.
  • Parental Abandonment: Caden spends little time with Ariel, the daughter he has with Claire, at one point referring to Olive as "my real daughter".
  • Parental Incest: Olive comes to regard Maria as a father figure, (which since she's a lesbian has its own Unfortunate Implications), which makes it extra squicky when we find out that Maria took her virginity and had a relationship with her.
  • Punny Name: The title is a combination of "Schenectady, New York" and "synecdoche".
  • Show Within a Show: And how...
  • The Shrink: Dr. Gravis.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: What seems to have happened to Caden at the film's end.
  • Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Seems to be happening in-universe to Caden, as everyone gets older and time moves faster without him realizing it.
  • Stalker without a Crush: Sammy. His exact motives for following Caden are unclear, so he could possibly be Stalker with a Crush.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Caden dies (along with possibly the rest of the city), but at the very least he dies with someone else and having finally figured out how to do his play.
  • Recursive Reality: The Movie. By film's end, the impossibly large warehouse housing Caden's play has built in its replica of Schenectady its own warehouse containing its own play; this Warehouse 2 contains its own Warehouse 3 with its own play, which itself has made a Warehouse 4 inside of it. While staring into the distance inside Warehouse 4, a building resembling the shape of all of the other warehouses can be seen among the replicated buildings there.
  • Rule of Symbolism: All over the place. Hazel's burning house probably takes the cake.
    Hazel: "I like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire."
    Real estate agent: "It's a big decision, how one prefers to die."
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Caden decides to make a replica of Schenectady and its inhabitants to make an accurate play on life and death; he ends up spending the rest of his life perfecting it and obsessing over every small detail that may not ultimately matter, it ends up falling apart, all of his actors inexplicably die, and Caden finally realizes how to perfect his masterpiece, only to die right before revealing it.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Much like his other directorial film, Anomalisa, there are elements of both. The very end of this film, however, is a lot more cynical than the bittersweet end of Anomalisa.
  • Surreal Humor: There are rare times when the film is so surreal it's kind of humorous. For example, when Caden's therapist tries to seduce him and he denies her, the book she wrote that he is reading abruptly ends.
  • There Are No Therapists: Cotard's "Therapist" seems more like a sadistic psychopath; the closest she comes to helping Caden is selling him two overpriced novels, one of which ends prematurely when he ignores her sexual advances.
    "I show you my leg. I stand close and you inhale my perfume. I offer my ripe flower to you and you deny it. This book is over."
  • Time Skip: The film spans five decades of time, but interestingly plays into dream logic throughout the length of the film:
    • The opening scene, in which Caden wakes up, heads down to get the mail and returns to eat breakfast that Adele is making while she consoles Olive and gets her ready for school, plays out like it takes place over one morning. When Caden wakes up, the radio announces that it's September 22nd. By the time he's gotten the mail and sat back down with the newspaper, it's already October 14th. Later in the same scene, the radio wishes everyone a happy Halloween while the newspaper now says it's November 2nd. This implies that the Cotard family are stuck repeating their banal existence daily.
    • Similar events happen throughout the film, in which it seems like a person is visiting two buildings in the same day but we're informed either by dialogue or set dressing that months instead have passed.
    • Caden eventually finds Adele's apartment. It's entirely vacant, but the shower is running and fresh coffee has just been poured.