Synecdoche, New York (R)
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dianne Wiest, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Jennifer Jason Leigh
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, and such is the theme of writer/director Charlie Kaufman's mind-twisting drama Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman is the Oscar-winning screenwriter who penned the masterfully original films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This effort, his directorial debut, is as ambitious and intellectually demanding as his previous work. It's also weirdly funny in the way his other films are. But there's an aspect of heart missing this time that makes this picture less satisfying.
Synecdoche (pronounced sineckdekey) is a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole or vice versa. Synecdoche, New York is the story of a neurotic theater director from Schenectady (yes, that they sound alike is one of the jokes) named Caden Cotard who finds himself in a colossal rut at about age 40. He's successful, but not prominent. He's convinced that every cough or any ache is an indication that he's suffering from a fatal disease. His marriage to artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is languishing. Adele has been invited to exhibit her work in Germany, and shortly before departure, she disinvites Caden from accompanying her as they had planned. She jets off to Europe with their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and never returns.
In a development that seems very unlikely, Caden is awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. With the handsome stipend it provides, in part to attract Adele back to him, Caden determines to write and stage a play that will make a definitive statement about the human condition. But the only human condition he evidently knows is his own, so he decides to write the story of his life. His life will stand for the lives of all the rest of us. This story will include his years with Adele, the loss of his first daughter, his second marriage to the actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), who will portray Adele and ultimately herself as well, his ill-adjustment to his second daughter, who can never replace his first, his lifelong flirtation with the eagerly willing Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house (that is always on fire — the smoke is a problem, but the price is right, the ultimate consummation of his lust for her) with Tammy (Emily Watson), the offhandedly sexual actress who plays Hazel, and the horror of his discovery that Olive has been tattooed from head to toe by Adele's friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and grows up to perform in peep shows. The play remains in rehearsal for decades and ultimately involves a preparation technique first employed by Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), the man who is to play Caden, where the actors follow the real characters around to study their every movement.
All of this is strange and much of it is strangely funny. Each new development pushes the story more deeply into the ridiculous. Emily Watson's arrival to play a character who is played by Samantha Morton is the kind of joke that Kaufman no doubt cherishes because Watson and Morton are often confused for each other. But Kaufman is up to more than just a bewildering game of nesting eggs. Caden's story isn't really a rendition of the way life is so much as a caution for how life ought not be. In attempting to create "the great piece of art," Caden merely demonstrates his capacity for waste. He never really lives. In pining for Olive, he neglects his second daughter. In pining for Adele, he squanders his relationship with Claire. We never understand his failure to connect with Hazel, save as a metaphor for Caden's inability to seize the opportunity for uncomplicated happiness. He is the snake who disappears by swallowing his own tail.
Wise as this is, Synecdoche, New York gradually becomes annoying and stultifying in a way that doesn't happen in Kaufman's other films. We care for both Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Hazel is the only character who commands our sympathy. Because Caden seems incapable of learning anything, we find him increasingly frustrating and unattractive, his self-absorption decreasingly interesting. We also find ourselves rebelling at any suggestion that Caden is the everyman who can stand in for the rest of us. Few of us make it through life without setbacks, disappointments, failures and periods of depression, but almost all of us manage to seize opportunities for joy, a quality utterly alien to Caden.