As weird, puzzling and maddening a film as you’re likely to find anywhere this side of David Lynch at his Lynchiest, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is either a work of great profundity or of notable pretension—or possibly both. Kaufman, who made his name writing such screenplays as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), has here gone the next step and parked himself in the director’s chair as well. The results may signify a case of the lunatic having taken over the asylum, but that doesn’t prevent the film from being perhaps the most fascinating and frustrating movie of the year. And there’s a central conundrum in this, because the film wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating if it weren’t frustrating. It’s ironic, then, that the frustration is externally compounded by Synedoche hitting town at the same time as the flood of year-end movies. Since it can only play for a week, almost no one will see it—or have time to see it twice, which it probably demands.
To the degree that Kaufman’s film can be summarized, it tells the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an avant-garde theater director who is married to a woman, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), who paints miniatures so small that magnifying glasses are required to see them. Things are not good between them. Adele is tired of Caden’s hypochondria and of subjugating her own art to his needs, so it’s no real surprise—except to him—when she runs off to Paris with their daughter (Robin Weigert) and another woman, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Convinced—somewhat, but not entirely irrationally—of his impending death, Caden becomes obsessed with making his ultimate artistic statement, something made possible when he lands a grant. This statement involves recreating New York City in an ever-growing number of warehouses with his ever-evolving cast actually living their roles. Years and years pass after Adele’s departure as Caden keeps working at realizing his vision.
That’s more or less the “plot” of Synecdoche, but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of either the increasingly strange events that occur during the course of the film or the thematic implications of it all. We are, after all, dealing with a movie that contains such concepts as one of the women in Caden’s life, Hazel (Samantha Morton), being hesitant to buy a house (though she ultimately does) because it’s on fire. “I’m just not sure I want to die in a fire,” she tells the real-estate agent (Amy Wright), only to be told that the choice of the manner of one’s death “is a very personal thing.” Or take, for example, Caden’s encounter with his adult daughter—who is dying from the toxicity of the flowers tattooed all over her body by her mentor/lover Maria—when she insists that he ask her forgiveness for something that never happened so she can forgive him. She tells him she can’t forgive him, whereupon she expires and (in a truly inspired touch) a petal from one of her floral tattoos falls onto the bed.
We’re talking about a movie in which the actors playing Caden’s characters become those characters. We’re caught in the world of Caden’s life—and the lives his life impacts—in such a way that reality and fiction are totally merged. Before it’s over, Caden has so become his characters that not only is he interchangeable with his own creations, but the creations actually control him rather than the other way around (or maybe they always have been in control).
On its simplest level, Synecdoche is an impossibly layered expression of the idea that life is that thing that happens to you while you’re making other plans. It’s also a statement on the inability of really divorcing the artist from his art, and a meditation on the life of the art apart from that of the artist—of art as a living entity with ideas of its own that direct the artist’s work. At the same time, the film is a devastating comment on the futility of “getting it right.” But it just skirts being depressing, because it recognizes the gloriousness of trying to attain that unattainable goal.
Synecdoche, New York has been called a “love it or hate it” proposition. That’s probably true. There are many people who will despise the film and find it incomprehensible garbage. Others will feel they’re in the presence of greatness. While I lean more toward the latter position, I have to admit that that’s a cumulative response. I was both bored and annoyed with the first 30 minutes of the movie. There’s a basic ugliness to that part of the film that I never quite got past, even though the whole of the experience made up for it. Subsequent viewings—and I suspect there will be several—may alter that. Time will tell, but for now the film must remain a flawed brilliant oddity that, if nothing else, goes places most movies never even dream of. Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.