Synecdoche, New York

An early exchange between theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his bored artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) represents one possible way into Synecdoche, New York. He talks about the 560 lighting setups in his latest play, and says “I don’t know why I make it so complicated.” She says “Because that’s what you do.”

That’s also what Charlie Kaufman does. His previous scripts (if you’re reading this, you probably know them) were intricate head games. So is this one, Kaufman’s directorial debut. This writer divides critics and serious moviegoers the way the Coens used to; some call him brilliant, others dismiss him as a solipsist in thrall to his own cleverness. In truth, Kaufman can’t be that up himself if even some other people dig what he does, and not all of those people are poseurs trying to be hipper-than-thou. Kaufman’s subject is creation as destruction, or vice versa. Even if you’re not a screenwriter making stubbornly un-Hollywood films, there’s always something in Kaufman’s work to hook into.

On the simplest level, without all the complications, Synecdoche, New York is about the compulsion to do something major, something to be remembered by, before you die. Towards this end, some people have kids; some go into sports; some climb into a tower and shoot people; Caden wants to mount the ultimate theater piece, a massive work that says everything about life — because that’s what he does. Of course, he turns it into a gargantuan simulacrum of his own life, hiring an actor to play him, and then hiring an actor to play the actor who plays him, and so on. In one of the better meta-jokes, an actress is needed to play Hazel (Samantha Morton), the theater’s receptionist and Caden’s on-again off-again lover, so he hires Tammy (Emily Watson) — possibly Kaufman’s goof on every critic who’s had trouble distinguishing Samantha Morton from Emily Watson. (Including me, at times.)

After years and years of rehearsals, one of the actors finally asks Caden, “When do we get an audience?” A fair question. Caden’s project doesn’t seem conceived for an audience. Neither does Kaufman’s, or at least not a mass audience; Synecdoche‘s widest release was 119 theaters, and it grossed $3 million against a $21 million cost. Eventually, though, people will find their way to Kaufman’s simulacrum. Too weighty to be codified as a “cult film,” Synecdoche could be called The Portable Charlie Kaufman — his magnum opus, with equal attention paid to integrity of art and integrity of stool samples. If your life is devoted to communicating what’s in your head, life will always bring you back down to earth, with undignified diseases and reminders that you’re going to end up as maggot food like everyone else, so if you want a shot at any kind of immortality you’d better look at Caden as your A-number-one cautionary tale.

Is Caden’s perpetually unrealized project a metaphor for writer’s block, or more generally any thwarted desire in life? God knows Caden can’t get no satisfaction anywhere else. His wife Adele takes off to Germany with their daughter Olive, who grows up rapidly offscreen; seemingly overnight she’s years older. Synecdoche plays fast and loose with chronology, right from the first scene, as if time weren’t just passing Caden by but actively fleeing from him. Caden is alternately chastened and soothed by the many women in his life, and this is where Kaufman deserves a feather in his cap for making a film with juicy roles for Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Robin Weigert (vivid in a late scene as the adult Olive).

Synecdoche is full of bizarre misunderstandings as well as enough surreal bits of business (Caden sitting in a German alley weeping while holding a big pink box with a nose drawn on it) to power five movies. Kaufman has always struck me as a profoundly generous writer, packing his scripts with far more than can be caught upon a single viewing. This Roark-esque chunk of storytelling architecture, which at one point depicts a warehouse inside a warehouse, takes as its landscape the many-chambered human brain in all its squalor and splendor, its debilitating illogic and cruel logic. Like Caden’s project, it’s about everything — or, at least, it’s about what you allow it to be about (the impatient, or non-fans of Kaufman’s other mindscapes, will say it’s about nothing).

Caden’s project has grown beyond him, which can be the best thing to happen to an anal-retentive creator or the worst, or both at once. Eventually he gives up control to a late-inning character (Dianne Wiest) who ends up giving him orders through an earpiece, including but not limited to how to wipe after taking a dump. He has, in effect, become a supporting character in his own story after failing at playing God for decades. It’s then that he realizes that, according to the film’s (perhaps too explicitly stated) summation, everyone is the main character of his/her own story, and also supporting characters or even just nameless extras in everyone else’s story.

Either you swim around happily in the world according to Kaufman or you don’t. I did. Every scene is pitched at the highest level and acted accordingly (Keener, as always, is a standout, and Hoffman carries the whole unwieldy vision on his strong, beefy shoulders — he does amazing things physically throughout). Kaufman makes a smooth transition to the God spot of filmmaking, helped enormously by ace cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who’s worked with Lynch (on Blue Velvet, no less), Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Todd Solondz and so knows his way around difficult independent films. (Hilariously, Elmes’ follow-up to Synecdoche was Bride Wars, which, well, y’know, Elmes has to eat.) Synecdoche, like Lynch’s Inland Empire, is a big, thick tone poem (an epic tone poem?) that hops between so many classifications — comedy, tragedy, fantasy, horror, realism, surrealism — it ultimately forges its own genre, or sui generis. You’d probably have to go back to Fellini’s to find anything remotely like it, though the end result is undiluted, original Kaufman.

On a petty, personal note (why not? especially with this film) I should hate this movie. I first came across the word “synecdoche” in a book about art terms, and was instantly taken with it; I thought it would make a great title for something, and filed it away for possible use for … something. When I heard about Synecdoche, New York — the title is a pun on Schenectady, Caden’s stomping grounds — I had two reactions: Damn, if someone was going to snag that title, it was going to be Charlie Kaufman; and damn, if anyone deserves to snag that title, it’s Charlie Kaufman.

This review is necessarily shabby and incomplete, written as it is after only one viewing. I let it stand as it is, and will reserve future screenings for myself only, for my own selfish pleasure. I will resist, if possible, the temptation to go back and revise my words here to reflect anything else I’ve picked up from subsequent journeys to Synecdoche. Anyway, I’ve chewed it enough; what it means, or doesn’t mean, should really be between you and you.

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