You know to expect a head trip from a movie written by Charlie Kaufman, the brilliant, solipsistic screenwriter behind such mind-benders as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But no amount of therapy or narcotics would sufficiently prepare one for his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York.”
Kaufman is the most meta of scribes, the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, but the screenwriter’s preoccupations transcend mere mind puzzles. Kaufman explores nothing short of human existence. And so it is with “Synecdoche,” a madly ambitious film that contemplates life and death and everything in between.
This is not passive viewing. “Synecdoche” is a kick in the teeth to the conventions of how we approach movies, art and even the people who comprise our daily lives. The picture is baffling and oblique, tedious and indulgent, strange and amazing and something of a revelation. It demands to be seen, although plenty of audiences will despise it (and perhaps not without justification), and even then, it probably warrants multiple viewings before its mysteries can be deciphered. Many a film student could tackle “Synecdoche, New York” and create a pretty meaty doctoral thesis.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) portrays Caden Cotard, a fledgling theater director in Schenectady, N.Y. He is the quintessential Kaufman protagonist: rumpled, neurotic and obsessed with death. Caden is in the midst of a unique production of “Death of a Salesman,” while his personal life is marked by a flurry of ailments (real or imagined, we’re never sure) ranging from pustules to seizures.
His marriage appears to be in a similar state of decay. Caden’s wife, Adele (Catherine Keener, “Hamlet 2″), who paints portraits so small that they can only be viewed with jeweler’s glasses, chafes against her husband’s moodiness. Marriage counseling with a self-promoting therapist (Hope Davis, “The Hoax”) does no good. Then one day, Adele flees to Berlin with the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Olive, and “Synecdoche” goes from quirky to off-the-charts weird.
Caden is awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and he resolves to use the money for a stage production of epic proportions. In a vast Manhattan warehouse, he spends years creating a full-scale replica of the world surrounding him. The exercise is self-reflexive to the point of derangement. He makes himself a character in the play, casting a tall, balding man named Sammy (Tom Noonan, “Snow Angels”) who has stalked him for years. It then becomes necessary for another actor to play Sammy playing Caden. And so on.
Years drift by without a hint of temporal logic. Caden mentions to his flirtatious assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), that Adele and Olive have been in Berlin for only a week. Hazel corrects him that it’s been a year. The passage of time forces a constant expansion of his production. He marries the adoring actress (Michelle Williams, “I’m Not There”) whom he has hired to play Hazel, but later casts the actress to play herself as his wife while hiring another woman (Emily Watson, “Miss Potter”) to play Hazel. Got that?
Is Caden dreaming? Is he dead? There are plenty of surreal clues to indicate something is amiss.
Kaufman provides no concrete answers, but what he does offer is a dazzling array of ideas, fears, hopes and paradoxes. At the film’s heart is the ever-widening gulf between Caden’s life and his desire to make sense of it. The artist in him wants to capture the truth of his existence, but his attempts to do so only pull him further down the rabbit hole of self-absorption. Sinking deeper into the recesses of his mind, Caden is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unwilling to simply live in the moment.
This is weighty stuff that, like Caden’s artistry, can be more tantalizing in theory than practice. By the movie’s final reel, “Synecdoche” has bogged down in bleak inscrutability. The directors with whom Kaufman has collaborated in the past were able to finesse some of his more fantastical notions. Left to his own devices here, Kaufman seems to indulge every whim, and the film stumbles from exhilaration to numbing.
But for the missteps of “Synecdoche, New York,” it deserves celebration for its ambition, audacity and fearlessness in taking on the Big Questions of existence.
I’ve seen nothing else like it. At least, I think that’s the case. To tell the truth, I’m not really sure what the hell it is that I saw.