Synecdoche, New York opens Friday in select theaters
Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York is a film with a plethora of preoccupations—sickness, death, marriage, cleanliness, gender, depression, the illusory nature of time, to name a few—and it works through each with unbelievable precision. Synecdoche explores its themes—exhausts them, really—inside a multileveled narrative rich with accurate symbols and clever devices without ever sacrificing its consistent clarity.
To spend too much time unpacking Kaufman's themes and the way he runs after, tackles and dismantles them would be doing a job that's already been done. This is a movie that doesn't need any help communicating. If anything, Synecdoche might suffer from being a little too perfect for its own good, laid out so meticulously that it's fatiguing to constantly connect the dots.
Kaufman, star screenwriter of films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is making his directorial debut here and his protagonist is—surprise!—a director. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a deeply depressed theater director who would rather be ersatz than actual, and has a bottle of saline solution labeled Tear Substitute to prove it. After his wife leaves him, Caden uses a MacArthur grant to launch a massive project that is doomed to incompletion from the outset. On his therapist's couch, Caden declares it must be massive, uncompromising and honest—and his play is essentially an extenuation of his therapy as he erects massive structures as totems of his own psyche and hires a small city worth of actors for a support group, organizing history's most ambitious round of role play.
Caden never pinpoints a subject matter for his masterwork beyond the lofty notions of being honest and brutal, leaving himself and his cast to wonder what they're being so damned honest and brutal about. But Caden insulates himself against realizing what's missing, literally walling up his set because, he says, being able to actually see the action inside buildings on stage is a lie. Caden's direction from behind closed doors is one of the movie's many precise visual metaphors.
Despite its gloomy subject and depressed central character, this is a fun film, not only because it has the biggest, hippest above-the-title cast (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan and more) since Murder on the Orient Express, but because Hoffman is so good at showing how much pleasure he gets out of acting miserable. It's either his most impressive talent as an actor or the trait that makes him annoying, I'm not sure which. But here it becomes an integral part of the movie, as his smirk (and it's Hoffman's, not Caden's) teases out how enjoyable this process is. Hoffman the actor can't help but have fun on Caden's playground, even though his character, obsessed with an impossible truth, with end results, and—in a nice running joke—with an evasive title, never thinks the play is ready. Eventually, he devolves into self-parody, directing actors who are much weaker than the cast he's wasted (driving one to suicide) as they state uninteresting platitudes about the meaninglessness of existence.
While Caden's play winds up being about his own life, it's in the works for 17 years before Caden casts anyone as the main character, himself. Say what you will about Caden's flaws as an artist, he takes his time. The film doesn't ever gush about the redemptive powers of art, but it spends most of its time immersed in a wonderful idea: a colony of actors living on a massive set (that comes to contain another duplicate set within it), suggesting scenes, taking notes from their director (and the actor playing their director), spending a day (a week? a year?) figuring out how a certain character walks.
That's the most poignant thing about Synecdoche: Caden—fixated on death, his failed marriage and a daughter whose gratuitous exploits he might be hallucinating—doesn't ever realize what a beautiful thing he's found in his process. If he could only see that a masterpiece is always less fascinating than a living mess, it would be a truly great work, probably a better one than the immaculate movie that contains it. Synecdoche might be Kaufman's masterpiece (it's certainly the best thing he's been attached to), but his film also has the fussy smell of too many drafts to be the great work that Caden manages to mess up.