Charlie Kaufman is one of the most intelligent and witty screenwriters in the business today. There is no possible way to get around that. He’s full of logic-twisting and grandiose ideas that never fall apart despite the threat of fragility from complexity. And when his drafts are helmed as features by the likes of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, the movies they end up becoming are limitless spans of emotion and thought given visual heft and thematic gravity. And that’s largely because of how well Kaufman cleans up by the time his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind move to production. He’s too damn amazing as a writer.
As a director is another story, though. Here we have his directorial debut of Synecdoche, New York, which premiered to much anticipation (including my own, though I was also mixed with trepidation when I heard about it) in the 2008 Festival du Cannes and the most miraculous thing about it is how it doesn’t entirely fail as a movie, but it doesn’t appear to concern itself with much except being another great big lens at Kaufman’s life, with the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman giving one of my favorite performances of his career as the Kaufman surrogate in the story, and throwing aside any possibility for commentary about Kaufman’s life with just a fascination with death.
This sort of self-reflection, right down to having one of the final notes being the death of an in-text representation of Kaufman’s ego, was already done to brilliant degree 6 years prior to Synecdoche when he transformed what was meant to be an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a surprisingly powerful meta-story with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. And Synecdoche doesn’t bring anything new in the movie that supersedes that movie’s commentary (I even frankly prefer Cage’s manic and impressive dual portrayal of the Kaufman twins as ids, though Hoffman’s visual awareness of Cotard’s physical deterioration and delicate handling of the character as both human and symbol brilliant) – indeed, the fact that Synecdoche feels necessary to revisit Kaufman’s life so redundantly feels honestly egotistical. Add to that the naval-gazing manner of having Kaufman himself direct his own script about himself leading a character based on himself who later on directs a character based on the character and it gets me less enthused by the film’s repetitions, which is only one of many – the most notable the recurrence of funeral scenes to go with the funereal manner of the picture’s certainty that everything is such a toilet flush to death.
Even before the plot truly kicks off its bold concept of theatre director Caden Cotard’s (Hoffman) project growing an impossibly large and working copy of Manhattan within a magically expansive warehouse in the Theatre District, Cotard is already suffering from one after another of physical ailments that look not at all unpleasant and is having trouble communicating with his young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) about the concept of disease or even that one has blood inside his or her body, to the chagrin of Caden’s fellow-artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener). Indeed, that proves to be one of several things that lead Adele and Olive to leave briefly on a trip to Germany that proves to be interminable and leaves Caden completely alone and alienated in his work.
And so Caden, certain he is going to die soon and with nothing to be tied to otherwise, puts the whole of himself into his project of building an entire city in the theater and watches as the little plot details pop up on their own in both his own life (namely affairs he has with women throughout) and in the play itself, no matter how hard Caden tries to control everything. And as Caden focuses on the play, the rest of the life he thinks he doesn’t have zooms right past as before he knows it, he ends up seeing his daughter grown up, his wife is dead, and time just keeps melting along with the rest of the meta elements.
I know that it reads like unpacking the narrative is remarkably complicated, but it’s not (I’m largely just trying to avoid major spoilers, since this is still a Kaufman screenplay). The truth in Kaufman’s direction comes in the fact that despite all it’s branches, the theme is clear and present, and that’s largely because Kaufman isn’t as sophisticated a director as Jonze or Gondry to really twist the movie around and force the audience to unpack things on their own. Does it have some pretty unforgettable images? Honestly, yes, moments within the film are gems of beauty like when the now adult Olive (Robin Weigert) has a flower tattoo whose petals fall off, but everything is painted as a giant sign for us to recognize and associate with Kaufman’s thoughts on death and it’s not as rewarding an experience as I would have had if the movie were as insistent on the audience’s participation like Mulholland Dr.
This also means that Kaufman’s usage of his way-too-overqualified ensemble – from Weigert to Keener to Dianne Wiest to Jennifer Jason Leigh to Emily Watson to Samantha Morton – reduces a lot of them to just fitting in the movie as another set of symbols rather than full personalities. Hoffman’s able to break from it, though Kaufman obviously gives Caden a lot more love than usual, Tom Noonan gets to play with his character a lot more (he and Leigh are certainly the funniest in show), and Michelle Williams gets to break hard enough into her anger to make her absence matter and be felt (but again that just leads right back into Kaufman’s obsession with himself since the character ends up being another of Caden’s affairs).
If this closed-off self-examination seems somewhat alienating, it’s not entirely impenetrable thanks to Hoffman’s emotional output and Jon Brion’s tiny minimalist score telling us everything about the emotional mapping that the cast and crew are too tied up to allow. There is at least something at the core of Synecdoche, New York to walk out with and it’s not a disaster, but it wears everything it is about early on before turning slowly into tone poem by the ending beats (I admit I actually admire the how it carries itself to its inevitable conclusion) and is a lot more self-satisfied with its miseries that it doesn’t allow itself to open up to any other facets of humanity except life sucks and then we die. Maybe that’s what Gondry and Jonze have that Kaufman didn’t, a genuinely joviality and humor that doesn’t distill Kaufman’s insights, just makes them easier to go down.