Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York is easily one of the top ten most baffling movies I’ve ever seen. I would have to watch it at least twice more to claim I knew what was going on in this story about a guy who either directs or produces stage plays, but I would rather jab myself in the eyes with a screwdriver than watch even one scene again. “Jumbled” is the kindest word I can think of to describe this mess.

The movie opens with a scene with the protagonist (very aptly described by any word that sounds like “agony”) Caden Cotard, the director/producer, rolling out of bed with worry on his face. He always has worry on his face. He is perpetually worried about dying from a mysterious medical condition he may or may not have. Although he certainly acts like a hypochondriac, several visits to various doctors imply that he is genuinely sick. He even manifests some weirdly divergent symptoms and eventually walks with a cane but, by the time these emerge, his life has veered wildly off-track from reality into la-la land.

Less than an hour into the movie, it’s not only impossible to tell what’s going on, it’s also impossible to tell what might be real and what’s a figment of Cotard’s imagination. For instance: Cotard’s wife, an artist who paints portraits so impossibly small that visitors to her exhibitions must view them through magnifying glasses, leaves him and takes their daughter, Olive, with her to Berlin. That seems to have actually happened to him. When he flies to Germany to visit Olive, the confrontation he has with her nanny veers into weirdness but might have actually happened. Later, he finds Olive’s diary and begins to read. At first, it’s about her life with Cotard. Then, impossibly, it’s about her life in Germany. Her childhood diary is filled with entries from her adult life, and by reading it Cotard learns that Olive becomes a tattooed stripper and dies because the tattooed flowers on her arm are dying. Or something. Did you follow that? Me, neither.

The whole movie is like that, building layer upon layer of weirdness. After winning a grant to produce his magnum opus, Cotard literally builds a replica of the streets of New York inside an impossibly large warehouse, a set on which he can stage every moment of his life. And because the production of this play is itself a significant part of his life, he builds a replica of the warehouse, inside of which is a replica of New York, inside of which is the warehouse, and so on, shrinking (or expanding … if the distinction matters at this point) into infinity.

I tried to keep track of the various threads, and labored mightily to figure out which layer he was on from scene to scene, but after forty-five or fifty minutes that required way too much effort. Worse than that, I already desperately wanted the movie to be over. I don’t dislike movies that are weird for the sake of being weird, but when they make me want to give up trying to follow the plot, to say nothing of forcing me to threaten to claw out my own eyes rather than watch them again, I start to feel the weirdness has gone way past the point of being useful.

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