Sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who spun American cinema on its head with striking scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” goes for fiendishly obsessional, intellectual acrobatics in his directorial debut.
“Synecdoche, New York” is monumentally ambitious — so crammed with literary innuendo and references galore the distributors would be well-advised to distribute CliffsNotes at the door, or have a semantics professor at a lectern coaching us on the finer points in Kaufman’s dense, lexicograhical narrative.
Going against the major idiot-proofing current of American filmmaking, Kaufman begins with the assumption that the audience will be as smart, observational and freakishly, gluttonously informed on just about every subject under the sun as he is. We’re supposed to get for example, the reference to Cotard’s Syndrome (a psychiatric disorder that compels a person to believe he or she is dead, or bleeding out their internal organs) when a character is dipping into the pages of “Swann’s Way” (the first volume in the “In Search of Lost Time” series) by Marcel Proust.
One of the people in this novel is a Dr. Cotar — based on Proust’s own father, who allegedly suffered from the disease. And it’s also the last name of the protagonist in the movie. How many viewers can actually clue into this stuff? And this is just one, tiny fragmentary tip of the iceberg — Kaufman designs the film like a towering, spiraling, architectural monument to knowledge — the more you know stuff like the zip code of Schnectady, N.Y. (it’s 12345) and the exact way to pronounce the title, not to mention the meaning -—the more delight can be forged from watching it.
At the same time, “Synecdoche, New York” is a testimonial self-tribute to Being Charlie Kaufman, which seems to be infinitely more synapse-taxing than Being John Malkovich and we all know how nerve-wrecking that was.
A mediocre brain like mine imagines that to ease the strain of his unbearable denseness of being, Kaufman created an altar ego on which to hoist a good size chunk of his angst, panic and artistic strenuousness and let this other bloke suffer under the weight for awhile. It takes a special pair of shoulders to bear such a colossal burden — and the honors are done by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who lurches and lumbers through the film like a guy who never exercises and finds everything — like putting one foot in front of the other to get to the door — a major workout. He’s gloriously unkempt and permanently slouchy — the caricature New York intellectual in baggy corduroys and a jacket that’s a size too small, beleaguered by the problems of reality living and the relationships that go with it while his head remains permanently stuck in the clouds. Woody Allen used to draw such characters but Hoffman is several hundred leagues more mired in an ocean of complications, hardly ever surfacing for a session of clever conversation with a brainy babe at Elaine’s.
Hoffman plays theater director Caden Cotard, who liberates himself from the suburban yuck of his hometown in Schnectady for minted big-city success in Broadway via an arts grant that enables him to build a mockup of Manhattan right inside a Manhattan warehouse. Cotard tells his assembled cast to live out their lives in a chosen corner of this toy city — he will merge all the stories of their lives into a huge and definitive narrative that will change American theater forever. He even gets the smooth, slim Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) to play his own self, in what Cotard hopes will be a booster shot for the play as well as his ego. And as the days go by and the city inside the warehouse expands and spreads like a virus, Cotard submerges himself in the streets of his own creation, mesmerized by the fantasy of it all.
Life in his city of “Synecdoche” needs his direction, supervision and intervention; life on the outside can take care of itself. But the perception of having control crumbles with the appearance of ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), who left him for the German arts scene, the deterioration of his current marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) and the nonstarter affair with sexy receptionist Hazel (Samantha Morton). Cotard clutches at his therapist (Hope Davis) like a drowning man but gets zilch help. Eventually, his cast ask with assimilated nonchalance: “So when are we going to have an audience?” That question rings more like: “So who are you, really?” and Cotard falters and freezes, struck with a bolt of existential lightning. It’s a brilliant moment that comes up in every Kaufman film, and the answer as always, remains unspoken.