It’s Synecdoche, not Schenectady, and it’s pronounced “sin-eck-doe-key.” Trust me, that’s not the only thing you’ll find baffling about Charlie Kaufman’s latest existential experiment.
With his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman has carved himself out a niche as Hollywood’s mad genius du jour (with an emphasis on the mad). Up until now, his more surreal tendencies have been kept in check (more or less) by talented directors (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and George Clooney). With Synecdoche, the Oscar-winning pencil pusher is cut loose to direct his own script, resulting in a dose of pure, undiluted Kaufmania.
The focus here is Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who wears pathos like a second layer of belly fat. Hoffman is our main character, Caden Cotard, a terminally depressed, middle-aged regional theater director in Schenectady, N.Y. (Confusing, I know. Look up “synecdoche” in the dictionary--it’ll make slightly more sense.) Despite having a cute daughter, an artistic wife and a successful career, Caden is obsessed with his own mortality. Why? One day, a string of doctors diagnose him with some sort of ill-defined but fatal illness. What nature of illness is this? Despite its deadly promise, it seem to be in no rush to kill him off. Its primary symptoms are graying hair, wrinkling skin and a slow sapping of energy, all of which manifest themselves over the next 30 or 40 years.
Watching Synecdoche, New York, you get the impression Kaufman would agree with British fabulist Neil Gaiman, who once wrote (somewhat less seriously) that, “Life is a disease: sexually transmitted and invariably fatal.”
Caden’s medical death sentence just happens to coincide with his receipt of a hefty MacArthur Grant. Taking this as a sign, Caden resolves to create his masterwork. This apparently consists of renting out a massive warehouse and mounting an epic stage version of his own life. In real time. As it happens.
I say “apparently” because Synecdoche works very quickly to confound clear-cut understanding. This isn’t a simple case of reality versus fantasy--as in, say, The Truman Show. Kaufman’s stories have always blurred the line between art and everyday existence, between memory and make-believe. He isn’t very interested in separating the two. Synecdoche isn’t your average “play within a play.” Granted, there is a play here, with Caden finding simulacra to substitute for all the real people in his life. But is he in love with a girl or the actress who plays her? Or both? Or is the actor who plays him in the play actually in love with the girl he’s in love with? Or the actress who plays her? ... Yeah, my head hurts, too.
As the story goes on, the “play” becomes more and more elaborate, eventually resulting in a full-sized, fully populated version of Schenectady re-created within the warehouse--leaving Caden’s actual hometown a deserted ghost town. (Here’s where that definition of “synecdoche” comes in handy.)
Even outside the “fictional” realm of Caden’s play, life in Schenectady is mighty strange. After his wife (a painter of microscopic portraits) leaves him, Caden takes up with a mousey ticket-taker. She lives in a burning house. A literal house on fire. Because it’s cheaper. Like Caden’s long-promised, never-materialized terminal illness, the flaming residence sticks around for decades.
Despite its bizarre setting and myopic obsession with the art of dying, Synecdoche is actually quite funny. Kaufman fills the stagnant, uncomfortable air with deadpan humor. (Husband: “I think there’s blood in my stool.” Wife: “The one in your office?”) Though there’s much black humor in evidence, the most frequent targets of this meta mindfuck are pretentious artists, self-absorbed writers and method actors. But this is more than just one big in-joke. By staffing his film with acting heavyweights like Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kaufman creates one big in-joke that is hard to dismiss.
Kaufman’s an original. No doubt about it. His latest film is witty, expertly acted and never boring. But it’s ultimately rather exhausting. It requires a lot of patience or intelligence or concentration. Or maybe a second viewing. Not all of which your average audience is willing to give a film. (Hence, the runaway popularity of High School Musical 3.) There’s truth and beauty in Synecdoche, New York, but it’s buried under several dozen layers of surreality, metaphor and synecdoche. (I used it in a sentence!) If you’re a fan of Kaufman’s brain-bending style of existentialism, it’s worth the effort. If you prefer High School Musical, I know a movie about vampires you might be interested in.