Charlie Kaufman, the writer of head-melting movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, makes his directorial debut with the curious and complex Synecdoche, New York, a film about creative life and death.
First, a word about the daunting title, a typically Kaufmanesque word-play that connects the New York town of Schenectady, where the film is set, with the similarly-sounding synecdoche, meaning a play on words in which a part may be used for the whole or the whole for a part, like saying “wheels” in place of “car”. In the film, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays theatre director Caden Cotard, who tires of adapting other people’s plays and sets about staging his own in a vast warehouse, a replica of his own life played out by a vast cast of actors, but one that can never end.
When we first meet Caden, his life is starting to unravel. Plagued by mysterious illnesses, he is suffocating in his own feelings of mortality and alienated from his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener). Then, after a minor success in a regional theatre, Caden unexpectedly receives a grant from a wealthy arts body which allows him to stage a vast play of his own devising. As the fake world inside the theatre starts to consume his life on the outside, Caden stumbles through a series of personal crises. Adele leaves him, taking their daughter, and becomes a celebrated painter in Berlin. Alone at home, Caden has an unfulfilling flirtation with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who works at the theatre box office, before marrying Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in his cast.
All of this happens in a fractured narrative that is as difficult to perceive as it is to explain. Time leaps forward sometimes in the course of a single scene or conversation, sometimes by months, sometimes by years. Characters age, marry and have children in moments, as do the actors in the play who are portraying them. Caden seems to exist in multiple worlds, as multiple people, awake and asleep. Kaufman and Hoffman construct the character from a combination of waking and dream states, realities and unrealties, blending the lot into an intricate dance across decades of time.
Later, when he hires an actor to play himself (Tom Noone), Caden discovers aspects of his true personality that he might prefer to keep hidden but are easily perceived by anyone who would care to look; his hypochondria, his vanity, his impotence. The endless play, about himself and the people around him, is Caden’s way of dealing with the difference between the man he thinks he is and the man he actually is. It’s an agonizing process of self-discovery, not helped by his depression and his constant struggle to be emotionally honest in his art. Caden is dying of women, as the poet puts it.
Synecdoche New York is, for better or worse, pure, undiluted Kaufman. Crammed with ideas about life and death, art and creativity, relationships and heartache, this is Kaufman’s 8 ½; a film about how hard it is to do much of anything at all, much less muster up the energy to make a film. If Fellini’s masterwork is a touchstone, Kaufman also pays homage to his literary heroes, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Philip K. Dick, generating the same sense of temporal instability, social paranoia and bodily discomfort.
But the strange spell doesn’t hold. As Caden cannot finish the play, Kaufman cannot finish the film. Synecdoche implodes in the third act as the director loses his grip on the story. Just at the point where he might have distilled his ideas about life and art into a grand unified theory, the film collapses into a mess of self-indulgent surrealism and non sequiturs. The complications and contemplations that had held such fascination are given a couple of twists too many and lose their elasticity becoming, if not tedious, then disappointingly slack. It ends on nothingness, a blank wall of white, like a canvas before the paint or a freshly opened notebook.