In this film’s opening shot—fortyish theater director Caden (Philip
Seymour Hoffman), blinking and disconsolate on rumpled morning bed-
clothes—a dateline flashes “Synecdoche, New York.” You can’t say Charlie Kaufman didn’t warn us. With his very title, the author of the mind-game screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind drops a big hint about his latest film: a tale told, if not by an idiot, then by someone clearly suffering some cognitive disorder as yet unrecorded by Oliver Sacks—one whose brain mistakes rhetorical figures for place names, characters for people, metaphors for reality. Through this artfully cracked narrator, Kaufman’s directorial debut goes on to take us deep inside a creative mind that’s unraveling before the abyss—and casts a bit of doubt over the actual director’s present competence.
When we meet him, Caden Cotard is awakening at midlife to a dwindling marriage and a creative cul-de-sac. His Schenectady-based theater company is mounting a warhorse for yokels, his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is growing emotionally distant, and his body is showing signs of some grave pan-systemic illness, in scenes that pulse with everyday terror—each verbal tic, malapropism, or sinister TV jingle auguring a massive insult to the brain. Physically depleted and morally paralyzed, he watches as Adele (a miniaturist Georgia O’Keefe who paints postage-stamp-sized canvases) takes their 4-year-old daughter off for an extended stay in Berlin, and both the local theater’s lead actress (Michelle Williams) and buxom ticket-taker Hazel (Samantha Morton) make advances he lacks the nerve to reciprocate.
Then a MacArthur “genius” grant arrives to give him a shot at redemption:
he will stage a massive theatrical experience in a cavernous New York City warehouse. “I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth,” vows the director, galvanized by his own mortality. And as Caden’s symptoms turn from gruesome (amber urine) to slapstick (quaking limbs, salivary failure), Kaufman begins to unspool a torturously baroque, decades-long, multi-planed narrative that intently destabilizes nearly every dimension—scale, time, space, identity—in its quest to make a funny, scary, penetrating, heartbreaking, immersive, all-encompassing statement about love, art, death, and points East.
Since it’s from the author of Adaptation, said statement naturally comes
wrapped in multiple layers of self-reference. Just as Caden stages a Death of a Salesman with 560 lighting cues, so does Kaufman deploy a veritable armada of magic-realist tropes as he follows his protagonist’s mushrooming, protracted construction of a living-theater simulacrum (which he even considers titling“Simulacrum”) in an endlessly mutating Chinese box of a yarn that envisions Manhattan-sized sets and drafts an entire second string of actors (Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest) to play the characters we met in the first half.
The template is 81⁄2—a working director adrift in melancholy. The emotional
terrain is Postmodern Dread—a black-comic fusion of Kafka, Beckett, and
DeLillo. And the epiphanies, as advertised, are brutal—far from the life- and
love-affirming sentiments of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine. But while deadly serious in theme, the film is frantically playful in its construction, introducing a new surrealist gimmick in nearly every other scene: a self-help book that speaks with supernatural specificity to the reader, a little girl’s diary that records her life from a distance, a house that’s on fire for decades. While some of these poignantly dramatize dark insights of growing old—children do become strangers overnight, and aren’t we all living in houses on fire?—many feel like kernels meant for separate films, as if Kaufman is daring us to decide whether the disorienting arrays of plotlines, tiers of self-reference, character iterations, and plays-within-plays were deliberately chosen to evoke an existential bewilderment, or he has simply lost control of the material. Or, you know, both!
Either way, despite some brilliant dialogue and a who’s-who of indie A-listers, it’s finally hard to feel much for these bipedal simulacra and synecdoches—except for the stalwart Hoffman, who gives a heroically human performance amidst all the sets, props, and doppelgängers. In Adaptation, Kaufman gave every appearance of rescuing himself from existential despair through a life-affirming work of art—writing his way out of clinical depression. This time, he writes us into one.
© 2008 by Chris Norris