Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?
Indeed, Caden Cotard is an artist of large ambitions and even greater interpersonal problems. His wife, famed miniature painter Adele Lack, is leaving for Germany, and doesn’t want her husband along for the ride. His four year old daughter loves him, but finds his lack of attention frustrating. Caden also catches the eye of box office cashier Hazel, a fiery redhead who literally lays it on like a house on fire. When he wins a genius grant, our hapless hero decides to produce something “real” – a kind of performance piece in which actors portray character living actual, real time lives. He also includes himself and Hazel in the “play”, improvising dialogue and narrative to give the roles shape. Caden soon finds the production consuming his every waking moment. Even worse, his obsession with getting to the heart of human existence soon starts spiraling out of control.
Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion (“synecdoche” is a Greek word for a concept that’s a distant cousin to the metaphor) and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse. It deals specifically with characters that just cannot connect while implied universal links via the always prescient concept of theater. As with many of Kaufman’s more confounding works – Human Nature, Being John Malkovich – there is a distinct feeling of being tossed into the middle of a performance without a playbill, a cast list, or a clue about the previous backstory or context. Indeed, the Oscar winning writer often creates works that feel insular and incomplete, as if a special key to understanding everything is missing or purposefully left out.
This doesn’t make his movie bad, however, just terribly confounding – and Synecdoche, New York is definitely mystifying. But not in a bad way. In fact, Kaufman is one of those rare strangled geniuses who can make the most absurd idea or approach seem sane. He’s like David Lynch if Mr. Blue Velvet dropped the dream logic and applied a more analytical angst to his projects. Even better, Kaufman is never dull. He may push the boundaries of our patience and understanding, but he does so in ways that are endlessly fascinating. As a first time director, he avoids obvious tricks or gimmickry. For all its frustrating surrealism and unexplained exposition, this is really just a quiet character study, an ensemble work in which everyone appears to be playing out their own unique and often contradictory set of motives.
There will be those who mistake Kaufman’s convex/concave creativity as unremittingly hedonistic. After all, is there really an audience for a film in which the title character fishes through his stool, cries during sex, and purposefully puts off the only woman who shows him any kind of affection or attention? He’s a nebbish that needs a swift kick in the ass, not some manner of shrink. As portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the bravest performances of his already illustrious career, Caden is karma bottled up and bloated. In many ways, Synecdoche, New York is like Woody Allen with all the linking verbs taken out. As it mines its incongruous insights, it stays closed off to even the most rudimentary internal investigation.
The rest of the cast also serves the movie well. Catherine Keener is making a new career out of Earth mother meanness, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is a revelation as a nationality shape shifting lesbian. Samantha Morton is amazing as Hazel, while her cinematic soulmate Emily Watson makes a clever, quirky in-joke of a doppelganger. Tom Noonan’s take on Hoffman as Caden is also interesting, since he seems to wean out the passion to produce a more dictatorial, dimensionless version of our hero, and Dianne Wiest steals every scene she’s in as an actress eager to take on any “part” in Caden’s life. Toward the end, when everyone is playing individuals of the opposite sex and sliding in and out of what passes for reality (Kaufman envisions a future filled with revolution, police states, and random airships), we sense that whatever’s happening here means something significant to the man behind the camera.
In fact, if one had to venture a guess as to what Synecdoche, New York really means, the notion of art abjectly reflecting an individual’s inner being seems central to what is happening in the plot. As he moves through his continuously irregular psyche, landing on random patterns and perspectives that illustrate his lack of success with other individuals, Caton contemplates how all of life is like Shakespeare’s proverbial stage. Of course, once you start believing in, and then starring in, your own personal production, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, debased, and then erased all together. Somewhere, in a warehouse recreation of New York City, a cast of characters sits, waiting for its motivation. Apparently, in the pursuit of life and love, we find that purpose – or at the very least, a plot toward same.