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The film premiered in competition at the 61st Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2008. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the United States distribution rights, paying no money but agreeing to give the film's backers a portion of the revenues. It had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on October 24, 2008, and was a commercial failure on its initial release.
Theater director Caden Cotard finds his life unraveling. He suffers from numerous physical ailments and has been growing increasingly alienated from his wife, Adele, an artist. He hits rock bottom when Adele leaves him for a new life in Berlin, taking their four-year-old daughter Olive with her.
After the success of his production of Death of a Salesman, Caden unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, which gives him the financial means to pursue his artistic interests. He is determined to use it to create an artistic piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can pour his whole self. Gathering an ensemble cast into an enormous warehouse in Manhattan's Theater District, he directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing them to live out their constructed lives. As the mockup inside the warehouse grows increasingly mimetic of the city outside, Caden continues to look for solutions to his personal crises. He is traumatized as he discovers Adele has become a celebrated painter in Berlin and Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele's friend Maria. After a failed attempt at a fling with Hazel (the woman who works in the box office), he marries Claire, an actress in his cast, and has a daughter with her. Their relationship ultimately fails, and he continues his awkward relationship with Hazel, who is by now married with children and working as his assistant. Meanwhile, an unknown condition is systematically shutting down his autonomic nervous system.
As the years rapidly pass, the continually expanding warehouse is isolated from the deterioration of the city outside. Caden buries himself ever deeper into his magnum opus, blurring the line between reality and the world of the play by populating the cast and crew with doppelgängers. For instance, Sammy Barnathan is cast in the role of Caden in the play after Sammy reveals that he has been obsessively following Caden for 20 years, while Sammy's lookalike is cast as Sammy. Sammy's interest in Hazel sparks a revival of Caden's relationship with her, leading Sammy to commit suicide.
As he pushes against the limits of his personal and professional relationships, Caden lets an actress take over his role as director and takes on her previous role as Ellen, Adele's custodian. He lives out his days in the model of Adele's apartment under the replacement director's instruction while some unexplained calamity occurs in the warehouse leaving ruins and bodies in its wake. Finally, he prepares for death as he rests his head on the shoulder of an actress who had previously played Ellen's mother, seemingly the only person in the warehouse still alive. As the scene fades to gray, Caden says that now he has an idea of how to do the play when the director's voice in his ear gives him his final cue: "Die."
The film began when Sony Pictures Classics approached Kaufman and Spike Jonze about making a horror film. The two began working on a film dealing with things they found frightening in real life, rather than typical horror-film tropes. This project eventually evolved into Synecdoche. Jonze was originally slated to direct, but chose to direct Where the Wild Things Are instead.
The burning house
Early in the film, Hazel purchases a house that is perpetually on fire. At first showing reluctance to buy it, Hazel remarks to the real estate agent, "I like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire," which prompts the response "It's a big decision, how one prefers to die." In an interview with Michael Guillén, Kaufman stated, "Well, she made the choice to live there. In fact, she says in the scene just before she dies that the end is built into the beginning. That's exactly what happens there. She chooses to live in this house. She's afraid it's going to kill her but she stays there and it does. That is the truth about any choice that we make. We make choices that resonate throughout our lives." The burning house has been compared to the Tennessee Williams quote: "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it." It has also been said that the house is a reference to Jungian psychology. In an interview, Kaufman mentioned that a Jungian scholar sees the house as a representation of the self.
The end is built into the beginning
The film continuously brings up the quote "The end is built into the beginning" which is meant to symbolize the emphasis on the connection of death with birth. This is emphasized by how most of time is spent being not yet born or dead, and how life is only implemented in a fraction of a second in comparison. Another attribute connecting to this theme is the grey screen. The film both starts and ends with a fade-in to a grey screen as a further connection to this ongoing sensibility."
Miniature paintings and the impossible warehouses
Both Caden and Adele are artists, and the scale on which both of them work becomes increasingly relevant to the story as the film progresses. Adele works on an extremely small scale, while Caden works on an impossibly large scale, constructing a full-size replica of New York City in a warehouse, and eventually a warehouse within that warehouse, and so on, continuing in this impossible cycle. Adele's name is almost a mondegreen for "a delicate art" (Adele Lack Cotard). Commenting on the scale of the paintings (actually the miniaturized paintings of artist Alex Kanevsky), Kaufman said, "In [Adele's] studio at the beginning of the movie you can see some small but regular-sized paintings that you could see without a magnifying glass ... By the time [Caden] goes to the gallery to look at her work, which is many years later, you can't see them at all." He continued, "As a dream image it appeals to me. Her work is in a way much more effective than Caden's work. Caden's goal in his attempt to do his sprawling theater piece is to impress Adele because he feels so lacking next to her in terms of his work," and added, "Caden's work is so literal. The only way he can reflect reality in his mind is by imitating it full-size ... It's a dream image but he's not interacting with it successfully."
Many reviewers believe Kaufman's writing is influenced by Jungian psychology.Carl Jung wrote that the waking and dream states are both necessary in the quest for meaning. Caden often appears to exist in a combination of the two. Kaufman has said, "I think the difference is that a movie that tries to be a dream has a punchline and the punchline is: it was a dream." Another concept in Jungian psychology is the four steps to self-realization: becoming conscious of the shadow (recognizing the constructive and destructive sides), becoming conscious of the anima and animus (where a man becomes conscious of his female component and a woman becomes conscious of her male component), becoming conscious of the archetypal spirit (where humans take on their mana personalities), and finally self-realization, where a person is fully aware of the ego and the self. Caden seems to go through all four of these stages. When he hires Sammy, he learns of his true personality and becomes more aware of himself. He shows awareness of his anima when replacing himself with Ellen and telling Tammy that his persona would have made him more adept in womanhood than in manhood. In taking on the role of Ellen, he becomes conscious of the archetypal spirit and finally realizes truths about his life and about love.
References to delusion
In the Cotard delusion, one believes oneself to be dead or that one's organs are missing or decaying. Caden's preoccupation with illness and dying seems related.
When Caden enters Adele's flat, the buzzer pressed (31Y) bears the name Capgras. Capgras delusion is a psychiatric disorder in which sufferers perceive familiar people (spouses, siblings, friends) to have been replaced by identical imposters. This theme is echoed throughout the film as individuals are replaced by actors in Caden's ever-expanding play.
In the closing scenes of the film Caden hears instructions by earpiece. This is similar to the auditory third-person hallucination described by Kurt Schneider as a first-rank symptom of schizophrenia.
This theme has been compared to the William Shakespeare line "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
It has also been compared to the music video for Icelandic singer Björk's song "Bachelorette". The video portrays a woman who finds an autobiographical book about her that writes itself. The book is then adapted into a play, which features a play within itself. The video was directed by Michel Gondry, who also directed Kaufman's films Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In an interview, Kaufman responded to the comparison, saying "Yeah, I heard that comparison before. The reason Michel and I found each other is because we have similar sort of ideas."
Death and decay
Throughout the film Caden refers to the inevitability of death and the idea that everyone is already dead. "Practically everything in Caden's grotesque existence betokens mortality and decay," writes Jonathan Romney of The Independent, "whether it be skin lesions, garbled fax messages or the contents of people's toilet bowls."
On review aggregatorRotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 68% based on 187 reviews, with an average rating of 6.77/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Charlie Kaufman's ambitious directorial debut occasionally strains to connect, but ultimately provides fascinating insight into a writer's mind." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 67 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating "generally positive reviews". A number of critics have compared it to Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8½.
In his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said, "I watched it the first time and knew it was a great film [...] the subject of 'Synecdoche, New York' is nothing less than human life and how it works. Using a neurotic theater director from upstate New York, it encompasses every life and how it copes and fails. Think about it a little and, my god, it's about you. Whoever you are." In 2009 Ebert wrote that the movie was the best of the decade.Manohla Dargis of the New York Times said, "To say that [it] 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 ... Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman's controlled grasp of the medium, Synecdoche, New York is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It's extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now." In the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano called the film "wildly ambitious ... sprawling, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking, frustrating, hard-to-follow and achingly, achingly sad."
Negative reviews mostly called the film incomprehensible, pretentious, depressing, or self-indulgent. Rex Reed, Richard Brody and Roger Friedman, all labeled it one of the worst films of 2008. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D+ and wrote, "I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: The compulsion to stand outside of one's life and observe it to this degree isn't the mechanism of art -- it's the structure of psychosis." American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "...it seems more like an illustration of his script than a full-fledged movie, proving how much he needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to realize his surrealistic conceits."
The Moving Arts Film Journal ranked the film at #80 on its list of "The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". In addition, it is the 61st-most acclaimed film of the 21st century according to review aggregator They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Top ten lists
The film appeared on many critics' top-ten lists of the best films of 2008. Both Kimberly Jones and Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle named it the best film of the year, as did Ray Bennett of The Hollywood Reporter.