Charlie Kaufman's intricate, fearless directorial debut exhilarates
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Hope Davis
Caden Cotard’s marriage, health and sanity are degenerating rapidly. He receives a “genius grant” and embarks on creating his theatrical masterpiece in a gigantic warehouse. Here he strives to construct a simulacrum of his life, loves and problems, but it only accelerates his neuroses and fears.
Charlie Kaufman fans who loved his complex and intense screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind might not have been expecting his debut as writer/director to be an easily digestible delight. At best, they may have anticipated a rewarding challenge. But surely nobody can have foreseen something as unsettling, grave and monumental as Synecdoche, New York. To say it doesn’t always work is not to imply failure on Kaufman’s part. Its aim – to grasp the meaning of human existence and identity, no less – is so high that it sometimes takes on unanswerable questions. Similarly, its plot is so torturously convoluted that on occasion it trips over the big philosophical issues. And yet, it’s a film that bothers you long after it ends. If it’s a muddled grand folly, it’s unlikely there will be anything else this year that comes close to matching it for ideas, fearlessness and profundity.
Theatre director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is disenchanted, afflicted by various bizarre or mundane illnesses. His wife Adele (Keener) loses interest in him and his work, moving to Berlin with their daughter. His therapist (Hope Davis) is more concerned with plugging her self-help book than in listening to him. He begins a relationship with unpretentious box office clerk Hazel (Morton), but this sputters out. In one of many surreal, dreamlike asides, her house, inexplicably, is on fire, permanently. It’s safe to say the opening third of the film is a litany of despair and angst, alleviated only by flashes of Kaufman‘s black humour, of which there is less here than in previous works.
Then it gets really heavy. Cotard is given a “genius grant” and moves an ensemble cast and crew into a New York City warehouse. He intends to create a piece of living art, a “happening”, a legacy of unvarnished honesty. He wants “to get to the depths of my lonely fucked-up being.” He vows, “I want to do something important while I’m still here.” “That would be the time to do it, yes,” deadpans Davis. A set is built to emulate New York, and his cast instructed to mimic his and their real lives in the city.
This brings complications, to put it mildly. Cotard’s new affair with actress Claire (Michelle Williams) suffers under the pressure of being intimate source material for the “play”. The actor playing Cotard (Tom Noonan) and actress playing Hazel (Emily Watson) have their own thoughts on how the pair should interact. As time passes, the play within a play evolves and self-deconstructs, and the tail starts wagging the dog. Caden, ageing, becomes increasingly obsessed, and confused. He’s long lost sight of what’s reality and what’s fiction, and of precisely which woman is which. (So, to a degree, have we). “You were Adele, Hazel, Claire… all her meagre sadnesses are yours. All her gloominess. Yours. It’s time for you to understand this,” another actress (Dianne Wiest) tells him, floating an epiphany of sorts.
Kaufman’s meta-cinema must be applauded in a medium that’s been widely accused of dumbing down. He’s presented here something intricate enough to put furrows in the brows of Borges or Baudrillard. It’s hard to find comparison points within US cinema, and only Soderbergh’s least-watched pieces like Schizopolis come to mind. Beyond that, you’re going European and back decades to Alain Resnais, or maybe Bunuel or Antonioni. There is no relief here, as there was in the mostly jovial tone of Being John Malkovich or the splashes of romance in Eternal Sunshine.
He’s analysing mortality, the ego and self-doubt of the artist and of the human, the great existential question marks. And without much restraint. In …Malkovich we entered another person’s head; in Adaptation a twin proved a rival to the individual. Here, several projections of Cotard’s self interact with diverse projections of others. The concept is followed through to logical extremes. Kaufman has said, “People can read different things from it depending on who they are.”
He’s also said, “I think the movie is fun”, and you may question that as you watch Cotard undergoing graphic dental surgery (just one of the indignities hurled upon our Everyman). Or ponder speeches like, “What was once before you, an exciting mysterious future, is now behind you; lived, understood, disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it.” This, by the way, is “everyone’s experience, every single one – the specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.”
While the various actresses are effective as multi-faceted muses/ciphers (Watson is brilliant against type), Hoffman’s performance is problematical. This most taciturn, inward of actors has many qualities, but his mumbling diction perhaps anchors the film more than intended. He’s all shade and no light. At least Carrey’s superbly muted playing in Eternal Sunshine… might have lent this unwieldy creation more agility, and gained Cotard (presumably Kaufman’s alter ego) more sympathy. And made it more credible that so many bright women would find this deadweight attractive. When he’s not fretting about futility, he’s muttering that he might be gay: there are numerous such stress-lines in the film’s peripatetic, dauntingly candid, psyche.
Any worries that Kaufman – adrift from (Synecdoche’s co-producer and intended director) Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry – might not hack it behind the camera are however comfortably assuaged. Visually, the film is full of dream-logic tricks, from Cotard’s set to flourishes like an airship coasting by. Despite flaws of intellectual hubris, this is no vanity botch-up like Southland Tales. Fairweather fans may flee towards sunnier pictures. But when it’s in the zone, it’s moving, radical and exhilarating. And that title? A “synecdoche” is a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole, or vice versa. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the film. That may be the least remarkable thing about an extraordinary work of art.