Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Catherin Keener
Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the most idiosyncratic work of all his films – the story of a depressed hypochondriac playwright who literally puts his life into his next play and vice versa. It assembles all the themes, elements, humour and distinctive characteristics of his work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry into his first film as director, unfortunately without the discipline of either of these great directors to guide the film toward coherency and accessibility.
Despite the narrative confusion the film has a solid emotion anchor, and it conveys its overarching theme of the introspective artist with surprising clarity. The details in between is constructed like a stream of consciousness writer running wild without an editor - a David Lynchian nightmare from the perspective of Charlie Kaufman. It’s wanders dangerously toward cinematic self-flagellation.
Kaufman’s alter ego in this film is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre writer with a seemingly loving wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive. Caden appears to suffer from a series of escalating ailments, which has Caden thinking he’s close to death. His wife has a career as a miniature painter – she paints really tiny canvases that can only been seen with a magnifying glass – and suddenly she finds herself becoming more famous as a bohemian contemporary artist. When fame calls she quickly dumps Caden and leaves for Europe with Olive. With his heart shattered Caden puts his life into his work to create his true masterpiece of the theatre.
Caden decides to hire an actor Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself who is writing and playing the production of this ultimate play. Except the ultimate play is a real time dramatization of his life. Even his assistant Hazal (Samantha Morton) gets in the act and casts an actress, Tammy (Emily Watson) to play herself. Since Sammy is playing Caden, like a true method actor Sammy wants to hire someone to play him, and so another version of Caden appears. Get it?? The real Caden falls in love with his assistant Hazal, but is confused when he develops an attraction to her alter-ego Tammy – same goes with Caden’s double. Get it??
“Synecdoche, New York” is just too complex an undertaking for Kaufman to handle for his first feature. There’s little consistency across the film, and a general feeling like it’s being made up as the film goes along. At the beginning, it’s a relative straightforward introduction to Caden’s family life. Humour is played with the same quiet absurdity as in “Being John Malkovich”. The dialogue is played very quiet, so quiet in fact, jokes and gags are missed because they’re often said under a character’s breath or over top of another line.
Kaufman’s time frame is erratic. With little warning, the film moves forward years in time without any traditional transitions to bridge the gap. The second half of the film has a snowball effect of the temporal paradoxes of the character and time shifting. The closest metaphor to use is one of those MC Escher paintings of a man walking down a set of stairs without moving anywhere. Though the film takes places over 17 years, with Hoffman gradually getting older via prosthetic face make-up the film doesn’t appear to move anywhere.
There are some truly wonderful Kaufman-esque moments. Caden’s wife Adele disappears early in the film after she moves to Germany, but her burgeoning career is referenced in numerous subtle ways. Adele is given a parallel existence alongside Caden’s, which we see in various media coverage placed innocuously in the background. I was reminded of that dramatic shift in “Being John Malkovich” when Craig Schwartz suddenly becomes a star puppeteer with a skyrocketing career.
I’m convinced somewhere in the film there is a masterpiece, one which requires constant attention, but for me it will likely take two or three more viewings to find it. For Kaufman though, it's worth the wait. Enjoy.