Since making his film debut as the oddball brain behind Being John Malkovich roughly a decade ago, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has established himself as one of the movie medium's singular and most brilliant creative forces.
His films — he also wrote Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — may be a genre unto themselves, but they aren't without precedence: There's a bit of Woody Allen in his flustered, neurotic protagonists. There's some David Lynch in his through-the-looking-glass surrealism. And the tendency to fictionalize real lives has long been a postmodern practice.
All of these elements are in place for Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut, which feels like his most personal film despite having made himself the lead character in Adaptation.
Synecdoche, New York follows the format familiar from Kaufman's other scripts, in which initially realistic situations unravel and at some point drop through a rabbit hole into outright meta-ness and surrealism. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as regional theater director Caden Cotard, who is married, unhappily, to artist Adele (Catherine Keener), with whom he shares a shabby two-story house in Schenectady and a 4-year-old daughter, Olive.
As the film opens, Caden is staging an ambitious production of Death of a Salesman while Adele is finishing up a set of paintings for a show in Berlin. His wife's departure — with Olive, without him, and, to his surprise, for good — and a bit of accidental head trauma throw the movie for a loop, speeding up time and tearing at the fabric of the real.
Desperate and adrift, Caden gets a MacArthur "genius" grant and decides to use the opportunity to stage a grand, autobiographical theater piece about the mundane and tragic nature of the human condition. He hires an actor to play him and has his new wife (Michelle Williams) play herself on a life-size New York City set forever under construction in a limitlessly huge warehouse. He hires actors and writes them individual notes each day to inform their improvisations, stuff like: "You were raped last night" and "You keep biting your tongue."
Reality and fiction — life and theater — begin to merge, and the piece is never finished, of course — at least not until death. It's about the process of creation as the final product, a process that replicates and begins to replace real life.
There are some tough, touching elements here, most of them involving Caden's estrangement from his daughter. But the unrelenting grimness ultimately feels more maudlin and self-absorbed than perceptive.
Truthfully, I've never enjoyed Kaufman's clever, anxious comedies as much as I'm supposed to — with the sole exception of Adaptation, which I do think is the best film anyone's made about the writing process — and so it is with Synecdoche, New York. The film is ambitious, personal, accomplished, and quite daring. And I kept waiting for it to end.
Synecdoche, New York
Opening Friday, November 21st