“Regardless of how this whole thing works out, I will be dying, and so will you, and so will everyone else here. And that’s what I’d like to explore.” These are the opening instructions that theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) offers a newly assembled cast in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. But they might just as easily serve as a warning to prospective moviegoers.
Fans of the film (and I am one) will praise its immense ambition and originality; critics, for their part, will declare it to be glum and narcissistic. As is not infrequent in such cases, both are correct. Synecdoche, New York is a huge film about puny sentiments, an anti-heroic epic of failure, remorse, alienation, and self-pity. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is very likely to be the most extraordinary.
Like past Kaufman scripts (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), this one begins in mundane enough fashion, as Caden awakes with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and preschool daughter Olive in his modest home in Schenectady, New York. (The movie’s title, like Adaptation before it, is a pun, drawing on both the name of the town and the literary device of synecdoche, in which a part is made to stand in for the whole.) The household is quickly beset by signs of decay: a public-radio interviewee who explains that writers are drawn to autumn because “it’s the beginning of the end”; a magazine cover entitled “Attending to Your Illness”; the discovery that Olive’s poop is inexplicably green (this is the first of many ill-colored emissions). The first notable event in the film is a plumbing calamity: As Caden shaves at the bathroom sink, the faucet jerks like a cut snake before exploding; his resulting head wound requires a trip to the emergency room. It is, as Caden guesses, “just the start of something awful.”
As Caden’s health deteriorates in odd and sometimes gruesome ways, Adele--a painter of canvases so tiny that they are shipped in crates the size of matchboxes--takes Olive away with her to Berlin for a gallery show of indeterminate length. Caden’s center cannot hold: Spoken language fails (characters trade confusions over homonyms like “stool” and “pipe”), and time itself seems to distend. When Hazel (Samantha Morton), the sweet, romantically forward ticket girl at Caden’s theater, points out that “it’s been a year” since Adele abandoned him, Caden replies as if she’s nuts: “It’s been a week.” But though we’ve been conditioned to take his side in the temporal dispute, she is in fact correct.
After winning a MacArthur genius grant (how, it is difficult to imagine), Caden begins the production of a theatrical event in an abandoned New York warehouse, a vast simulacrum of the outside world for which actors must be found to play the actors playing the characters in infinite regression. A stalker (Tom Noonan) who has followed Caden for decades becomes his on-set double; an actress hired to play Hazel (Emily Watson) replaces her offstage as well by letting Caden take her to bed; another (Dianne Wiest) arrives to play a part that Caden had stumbled into in real life (that of ex-wife Adele’s cleaning woman), only to replace him altogether as art gradually usurps reality.
The subject of Kaufman’s best work, Eternal Sunshine, was the gradual erasure of a man’s memory. Here, the subject is the erasure of the man himself, the way his roles--husband, father, lover, director--are one by one shed, stolen, half-forgotten. As Caden’s stalker informs him at one point, “I want to follow you and see how you lose even more of yourself.” These are the windmills of Kaufman’s mind and, like God’s, they grind slow but exceedingly fine.
The first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote, Synecdoche shares the hazy, dreamlike quality that has characterized much of his work. For all its cleverness, the pieces don’t fit too neatly. Some of the themes are readily apparent--the intertwining of sex and death, which almost always accompany one another in the film--but others remain obscure, such as Hazel’s purchase and long residence in a house that is perpetually on fire. The result is a film that is less philosophical, or even psychological, than neurological in impact. It doesn’t make an argument, it evokes a mood, a broad sensation of regret and exhaustion. The world it conjures is one in which important truths remain hidden or misunderstood.
The large cast, which also includes Michelle Williams as Caden’s second wife and Hope Davis as a predatory psychologist, is uniformly excellent, if generally operating in a minor key. Even Hoffman, who appears in nearly every scene, is uncharacteristically recessive, and while this is clearly intentional, it is not always terribly satisfying. There are no Big Performances on display here. From its first frames, this is Kaufman’s baby, and while some viewers may find it unlovable, it is moving in odd and unexpected ways.
It is, moreover, a work of such scope and imagination that it makes the fall’s other releases to date feel small and half-hearted, easy illusions that might be playing on a movie screen somewhere within Caden’s vast set. Seldom does one run across a work of art so strange and original and yet so comprehensive, an invented universe so fully realized that emerging from the theater at its conclusion can be a dislocating experience. Though barely two hours long, the film feels longer--and not, for once, in a bad way. It is an immersive experience, far too much movie to be fully digested in a single sitting or, in my case, even two. And, yes, that may be taken as a compliment, a complaint, or both.Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.