There has been a lot of over-the-top, super-hyperbolic praised heaped onto screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. And here’s some more. I believe this movie was made specifically for me at this point in my life. Yes, there’s an implied qualifier there. It’s perhaps not for everyone. If you’re not obsessed with your own failings when put up against your peers, if you’re not constantly waiting for death or expecting to be found out as the fool you know yourself to be, if you’re not so hopelessly, narcissistically self-loathing that you can’t find the energy to see anything beyond the world in your own head—in other words, if you’re not just like Kaufman’s protagonist Caden Cotard, maybe you should skip this one.
But then again, is anyone not like Caden Cotard? And, if so, who cares?
Caden, played to corpse-like perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a walking bag of malady. He’s covered in boils and pustules, he’s got a brain fungus that keeps him from being able to produce tears or saliva, and he literally sees his imminent death in every piece of mail he receives and every TV commercial he watches. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage and infatuated with his co-worker Hazel (Samantha Morton). On top of all of that, his vivacious wife (Catherine Keener) has taken off to Berlin to become a celebrity, along with their 4-year-old daughter Olive.
That’s when Caden—a Schenectady, N.Y., theater director who just finished an acclaimed run of Death of a Salesman—finds out that he’s received a MacArthur genius grant. He decides to use the money to finally “do something real” with his career, a “true-to-life” play that is, in itself, a macro microcosm of his own mental universe.
Caden takes the idea to New York City, where he rents out a massive warehouse and begins building a mini-city inside, populating it with characters based on everyone he’s ever met or interacted with, including himself, as played by the ultimate method actor Sammy Barnathan (a character played by real-life actor Tom Noonan).
Since the play is all about Caden’s life and since his life is consumed by the play, it becomes about the play itself. He builds another warehouse inside the warehouse, and another inside of that, each with another Caden who’s directing a play about directing a play about... and so on.
Caden, the “real” Caden, is never satisfied enough with his creation. As he continues to “rehearse” it we see him and his constant companion Hazel age some 40 years. He falls in love with, marries, and divorces another woman, the actress Claire (Michelle Williams), and, from a distance, he sees Olive grow up and die.
Meanwhile, the play only grows inward. He never premieres nor even titles it. And, as he slips into old age and begins to become senile and unfocused, his life is completely taken over as he joins the cast, switching places with Millicent Weems (Diane Wiest), an actress who came on to play cleaning lady Ellen Bascomb.
And now, we all get it. Caden is obsessed with himself to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s even a funeral scene (within the play) where the “priest” ends his sermon by walking away from the mourners and lamenting his own lot in life, capping it all off by saying, “Fuck everybody.” It’s all a bit on the nose, right?
So, yes, Synecdoche is pretty self-indulgent stuff, and it doesn’t dance elegantly around its Big Themes like serious films are supposed to do.
Then again, subtlety isn’t what Kaufman’s audience wants. This is, after all, the writer who, in his first major script, literally took his characters into the brain of another person. What’s wonderful about Kaufman’s films is that he actually shows you what his ideas are rather than forcing you to read between the lines. And because he directed this one, the film itself, follows the same style as its writing. While Kaufman’s earlier films were all pretty good, they were all filled with the type of visual and stylistic flair—characteristic of seasoned directors—that Synecdoche proves was unnecessary. You know, like, fluent acting. Kaufman’s knack for writing true-to-life dialogue is enhanced by deliberately stilted performances here. These people talk like people. All the ineloquence, the unnecessary vulgarity, and the vocal trips and quirks you encounter in actual, real-life conversation are here. It’s that commitment to simplicity that keeps this seemingly off-the-wall film grounded, and reminds the audience that, in essence, it’s a movie about a guy who’s very much like them. Well, some of them anyway.