Synecdoche, New York is a fascinating, thought-provoking film. Re-reading what I wrote about other films written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I see that I’ve compared his work to origami pieces, and I still think that’s apt. You can lose yourself in their multifarious layers and folds — and sometimes, when imprecise fingers and thumbs finish modeling the creature, the thing doesn’t really match what you saw on the instruction page. I wonder if Charlie Kaufman films are like that, too, born from screenplays so psychologically intricate and emotionally personal that the finished home his imaginings find on screen doesn’t quite match the blueprint. This film is very much of a piece with its predecessors, but somehow the tone is different. It’s more ceaselessly despairing, with little modulation of the overall grind.
Kaufman is celebrated by many film critics in part because he’s such a damned writer — but for me, his films to date have benefited from the liberal exercise of somebody else’s directorial sensibility behind the scenes. His previous scripts worked in part because they were an effective foil to some of the more madcap tendencies of directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Kaufman is terminally cerebral; Gondry is hopelessly wistful. Kaufman dives into black, tumorous humor; Jonze tends more to intellectual slapstick. (“Think fast, Malkovich!” is surely a Kaufman moment, but it gains tremendously in humor and absurdity from Jonze’ timing and execution.) What I’m getting at is: Kaufman’s first film as director is both a triumph and comedown. Synecdoche, New York is deep in its thinking, rapturous in its sorrows, and fearless in the display of its naked heart. It’s a showcase for the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has now honed his portrayal of a brand of intelligent miserablism to a vanishingly fine point, as well as a supporting cast (Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh — basically just an enormous embarrassment of riches) that’s uniformly note-perfect. It’s a great thing to director actors well, and Kaufman obviously has that talent. And his film is positively bloated with ideas. But though it’s occasionally terribly funny, it’s humorless in the main. And as I get older, I find myself making less time for humorless films, unless they have that strange beauty about them that can make sadness and horror so seductive. (This is surely my own limitation as a viewer, but it’s something I cannot help.)
Watching it, I got the idea that director Kaufman never stepped back to gain some perspective on his own over-abundance of vision. Synecdoche, New York moves with the almost surreal quality of a narrative that’s making itself up as it goes. It’s Kaufman’s first film as a director and — yeah, that figures — his on-screen surrogate this time around is a (theater) director. This director, this Caden Cotard (Hoffman), is either a hypochondriac or a very, very sick man. He spends the first section of the film fretting over alarming physical problems — boils on his legs, sores on his face, bloody urine, a gash in his forehead — that are dismissed by doctors as irrelevant. They direct their attention toward more obscure ailments. His pupils aren’t dilating properly, so he’s referred to a neurologist. He’s having problems with his teeth, so he’s referred to a periodontist. (The bright, bloody scene in which Caden undergoes gum surgery is so psychically traumatizing that it could sick up a Cronenberg film.)
Through these opening scenes, Kaufman seems to be setting Caden up to take a fall with a painful and possibly terminal illness, but Caden never gets a doctor’s diagnosis. Because we actually see him pissing what looks like blood-stained urine, and see him poking at his own uncomfortably dark mess in the toilet, Kaufman seems to be signalling that we can take Caden’s unease over his health at face value. We’ve seen this with our own eyes. He’s not just imagining things; there’s obviously something wrong. But when “something wrong” never really materializes, and as Kaufman ratchets up the velocity of his story so that weeks, months, and finally years and decades fly by, are we to surmise that we were only sharing Caden’s paranoid visions, informed by his anticipation of much misery to come? Or could the preponderance of the narrative be dream sequences — a sick or dying man’s fever dream? Or just an old man’s interior dramatization of the lessons (not) learned over the course of a wasted life? I wonder, are we seeing Caden’s life up there on screen? Or merely a representation of it — one of many possible versions of a life that reaches the point his is at as this film begins? It’s provocative, sure. But, like Cotard poking fretfully at his own turds, it keeps threatening to crawl inside its own ass and disappear from view.
The rays of sunshine in the cloud cover over Cotard’s existence are the women in his life. His artist wife, Adele (Keener), is talented, with a burgeoning career of her own. His beloved four-year-old daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), is a sweet symbol of hoped-for immortality. Hazel (Morton) is Caden’s pretty, if gawky, box-office clerk, who carries a torch for Caden as well as a copy of Swann’s Way. (Caden goes to bed with her, but can’t help sobbing as they have sex, which Hazel understandably regards as a dealbreaker in that department.) Claire (Michelle Williams) is the pretty actress who learns her craft under Caden’s tutelage, then grows disillusioned as his lover. And then there’s Tammy (Emily Watson), whose sexual willingness finally jars an aged Caden into something like an epiphany when her presence helps him realize what he’s been missing. Synecdoche, New York is partly about the problem of being a man — how difficult it is to maintain an erection while you’re weeping, how easy it is to let your family drift away, how confounding the urge to assert one’s self through art can be — and the female characters here do fall into a too-neat array of stereotypes.
The subject and title of one of Kaufman’s scripts is “adaptation,” and the problem faced here by Caden Cotard is one of adaptations. He loses his wife in part because he expresses himself as an artist through passive-aggressive interpretation of the work of others. For example, he casts young actors in Death of a Salesman partly out of jealousy and resentment, declaring that his production will make the further point — one that these young people don’t quite realize– that they are facing a crushing frustration and sadness that will grow within them over the years, pressing on them for the entirety of their lives. (That this purported revelation is directed at the performers, not the characters, hints at the sadism that can creep into a director-performer relationship.) Cotard’s magnum opus, enabled by a MacArthur Foundation genius grant that he receives only after Adele has fled to Berlin, with Olive in tow, under the wing of her new lover Maria (Leigh, in a brief role as a knowing sexual predator that momentarily lends Kaufman’s opus something close to the wry hilarity it deserves), involves a similarly twisted act of creation. Working on the largest possible scale (in contrast to Adele’s self-consciously miniature portraits, which require a magnifying apparatus for proper viewing), Caden works furiously at creating a replica of quotidian New York City, replicating the interaction between friends, lovers, and strangers in apartments and on rooftops and on streetcorners. He casts a furiously dedicated method actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself; he casts Tammy as Hazel; he methodically rebuilds apartment buildings and entire neighborhoods. Standing inside Caden’s installation must be a little like spending time on the Vegas strip with too much alcohol and too little sleep in you, staring up at the bizarro scale reproductions of various world landmarks and architectural styles and getting confused about where exactly you are, anyway.
As his project grows ever-larger, requiring the construction of bigger and bigger warehouse/performance spaces, the joke’s on Caden, who still fails to find an expression of his own self, instead getting stuck in an endless progression of stand-ins, redundancies and simulacra that keep him at a distance from the genuine articles. In order to make the audience feel a similar kind of disorientation from the real, the film trades on confusion. The film begins in a more-or-less-naturalistic mode, but the narrative grows steadily more outlandish as it goes internal. Time, for instance, passes very quickly; signals are dropped into the script to move the story forward in leaps and bounds, but until Hoffman started donning his old-age makeup, I still wasn’t sure if I was reading the film correctly. At one point the adult Olive shows up as a nude, tattooed exotic dancer who won’t forgive Caden for a (fictio
nal) transgression against her, which he confesses to in a moment of genuine feeling. Caden starts seeing himself in TV programming, or in bus-stop posters for upcoming movies. He’s approached at one point by somebody who asks, improbably, “Are you Ellen Bascomb?” (He answers in the affirmative, and gets away with it.) And his faux New York City skyline, existing entirely beneath an enormous curved roof, is the stuff of unmistakable fantasy. In some sense, the film is one long, slow transition from conventional narrative to interior psychological drama, and — at least on a single viewing — it’s not clear when or why, exactly, the changeover occurs.
Kaufman achieves the considerable task of eventually making such complicated business connect. This film never sings, exactly, but it moves, and it does so bearing a great sadness. But it doesn’t always manage to do it gracefully. It’s stuffed so full of ideas out of Kaufman’s head that the central emotional threads begin to ravel as the narrative moves deliberately, obstinately, ineluctably out of focus. There’s magic in this film – like the idea of Hazel’s house, perpetually aflame, or Adele’s tiny, beautiful nudes, which she creates hunched over with spyglasses and tiny brushes, a Brakhage working on canvas instead of film strips — but Kaufman never makes it lively. (He evokees the misery of the creative process, but dodges the joy.) The women are so obviously stereotypes that it’s possible Kaufman is deliberately invoking the sexist cliches of the tormented-artist flick, from the castrating switch-hitter at the fulcrum of Caden’s failed marriage to the sexy ladies who get involved with him because they admire him as a mentor and passionate mind. Still, his directorial conception of Cotard’s world(s) is strangely flat — perhaps a good approximation of Cotard’s demeanor, but a frustrating way to spend two hours plus in a movie theater. Like Cotard, Synecdoche, New York eventually seems to exist only on display in an insular, controlled environment isolated from the elements and the human randomness of the world outside.
Kaufman’s work has always, to some degree, acknowledged the status of his characters as helpless dolls yanked into some approximation of life by the tugs of a careful puppetmaster’s strings, but in this environment they feel programmed to the point of stupefaction. It’s the conundrum of Synecdoche that the depressing bits, the unavoidably, universally draining tragedies of the human heart, are simultaneously the point of the film. It becomes explicit only as Kaufman struggles to mount an emotionally resonant closing statement, deploying a manipulative, Jon Brion-scored montage featuring the film’s main characters (it took me back immediately to the “Wise Up” sequence at the heart of Magnolia) to essentially shut down their stories; it’s a lead-in to a piercing, melancholy final scene that suggests the degree to which Cotard has lost not only control of his life and art, but even the very concept of self. As Caden wanders the devastated remains of his own imagination, taking orders barked by a director living inside his own head, the film’s narrative strategy has become maddeningly diffuse — but his tragedy is strangely complete. B