Synecdoche, New York
Well, you can’t accuse Charlie Kaufman of dumbing down for his directorial debut.
The cult screenwriter has created a string of singular, post-modern philosophical comedies for Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich; Adaptation), George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), but he’s out-done himself here.
Synecdoche (horribly pretentious title) was originally written for Jonze to direct, but he bailed when Where The Wild Things Are turned into a sfx quagmire – probably with some relief, as this personal, serious, surreal movie is equally demanding in its way.
A fantasy film for middle-aged manic-depressives, this is an American 8 1/2 (see also: Stardust Memories; All That Jazz), a jaundiced, Fellini-esque autobiographical comedy about one Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual, a theatre director, living well off-off Broadway and apparently in a state of severe physical and spiritual disintegration.
Caden is trying not to notice that his wife (Catherine Keener) is in love with another woman, but he’s acutely aware that he’s sick with… something… and he’s nervous as heck about his new production of Death of a Salesman.
On the semi-positive side, the box office manager Hazel (Samantha Morton) has a crush on him, and his lead actress, Claire (Michelle Williams) also seems keen. Unfortunately Caden doesn’t have the life skills to juggle an unhappy marriage and an affair, or two.
It sounds depressing and it is, but Kaufman’s mordant sense of humour is much in evidence, especially in the strain of surrealist absurdism that keeps breaking through the surface, until, in fact, it becomes the surface. Hazel goes house-hunting and gets a great deal on a little two bedroom place because of the fire smouldering out of control in the living room – it’s a permanent feature that she learns to put up with.
About half an hour into the movie Kaufman deliberately confuses our sense of Caden’s reality. He gets unhappily remarried, maybe. He wins a prestigious and lucrative grant to mount a theatre piece from scratch – and settles on a dramatization of his own life story. But not a period piece – this is the theatre of life, evolving and mutating as it becomes infected with Caden’s present. The actors become characters in their own right, played by understudies who might also, with familiarity, become active agents in the play. Caden recruits Tammy (Emily Watson) to play Hazel, and falls in love with her even as Hazel becomes intimate with Sammy Barnathian (Tom Noonan), the actor who plays Caden. It’s like The Truman Show, only Truman is directing too, or trying to.
Too much post-modern, self-reflexive solipsism? Maybe, though for all Caden’s narcissism, there are extraordinary performances by Morton, Watson, Keener, Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest and Hope Davis… It’s a curious solipsism that finds that much room for other people. I suspect most audiences will have a hard time warming to this movie. But for a significant minority it may be the best thing they will see all year. Certainly it sprawls and confounds and infuriates – but so few movies have the guts to risk so much, or push so far!
What’s important, I think, is that in the end it’s not a film about how clever Charlie Kaufman is, or about the elusive line between art and life or any of that high falutin’ theoretical stuff. It’s actually very simply a film about a man who tries and fails to get a hold on his own destiny; who tries and fails to transcend his own limitations; who tries and fails to establish meaningful connections with other people.
For myself, I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, and I don’t plan on revisiting it for a while, but I was amused, and bored, and moved in that order, and I’m glad I saw it.
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