Suffering for his art
Kaufman finds another character to further blur the lines of the actual and unreal
I can't pretend to know fully what Charlie Kaufman is up to in "Synecdoche, New York," with all the doubled characters, dreamy reenactments, comical minutiae, and personal unhappiness. But I got a great deal of pleasure out of watching him mount his fantasia about an artist suffering not simply for his art, but because of it.
His characters are all men struggling with desolation. And what is always so gratifying about the Kaufman experience - he wrote "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - is how so much of it is predicated on the human resonance of loneliness, obsession, and compulsion as well as on the desperation to matter to a woman or to the world.
In "Synecdoche," the man in despair is Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, N.Y., theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose increasingly retreating performance is like watching the sun drain the color from a Polaroid picture. Not long into the film, Caden's preoccupations with mortality and malady (his own body appears to be diseased) lead him to mistake the playwright Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize announcement for an obituary. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), does microscopic portraits that can be seen only with a set of magnifying glasses, the kind of thing only a Keener character would ever do.
This also being a Keener character, Adele berates Caden at home and in front of their self-promoting couples therapist (Hope Davis). She fails to come see his all-young-cast-playing-old-people production of "Death of a Salesman" on opening night because, hilariously, she has to pack her tiny canvases for shipping. She and her friend Marie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wind up hating the play, anyway. (It is pretty terrible.)
Adele asks, why can't Caden just come up with something original? After she takes their daughter, Olive, and leaves him for art-world superstardom in Germany, he does. Caden embarks on a quest to construct a theatrical approximation of the human condition, the condition being suffering and death, the quest being Sisyphean.
His aim appears to be to win Adele's attention by trumping her scope. If she paints in miniature, he'll work in super-size. And so he builds a full-scale replica of New York City in a warehouse and proceeds to hire actors to play people he loves. But the fascinating result of this production (it doesn't receive a proper title, and the budget would require a decade's worth of MacArthur "genius grants") is that art doesn't imitate life. Art stains and devours it.
Caden's project lasts 40 years and spans several women, including his unquenchable crush, Hazel (Samantha Morton), a pert, red-headed box-office receptionist, who lives in a house surreally, permanently on fire.
Caden winds up marrying Claire, the star of his "Salesman" production, who's played by the lovely Michelle Williams. In his warehouse work, he casts Claire in the sadly unglamorous role of herself as hausfrau. In an awesome set of sequences, we see how vast and elaborate the show is: mountains of props, seas of extras and crew members, Claire hunched over an ironing board. The camera can't begin to take it all in, even as it follows Caden walking up and down rows of people, correcting and instructing them. The place looks like a refugee camp.
The production itself feels like a sweatshop for art, with Caden not as a director so much as quality-control inspector. A man named Sam (Tom Noonan) volunteers to play Caden (he's been studying the role for 20 years) and Caden hires a British actor, played by Emily Watson, to play Hazel. These four find themselves tangled in an emotional puzzle that defies romantic comparison to any particular geometric shape.
While Caden searches for truth, Kaufman heads in the opposite direction, steadily cocooning his movie in surrealism. The lines between the actual and the unreal become impossible to separate. But some of the configurations are delightful. When Morton critiques Watson's impersonation of her, "Synecdoche" ascends to meta-movie heaven and stays there after Dianne Wiest shows up in the home stretch. She looks like her "Hannah and Her Sisters" character warmed over. But her function narrows with amazing purpose. She winds up the holiest of stage managers.
The play's success becomes increasingly hopeless. (One frustrated crew member tells Caden, "It's been 17 years. Where's the audience?") The years pass. Caden ages (his hair grays and recedes, he walks with a cane), and each new idea grows on the production like a tumor. The title evokes the literary term for a part that represents the whole. But the search for wholeness only turns up more parts.
"Synecdoche, New York" comes as close as any film has to explaining the epic indignity of the creative process, how some great works collapse beneath their own abstraction. The endlessness of Caden's ambition is a tragedy Orson Welles would appreciate. In another sense, "Synecdoche" is a New York neurotic's version of Federico Fellini's 1963 circus, "8 1/2," in which an artist is consumed by his art, the women in his life, and Catholicism. But where Fellini was after the personal and political hypocrisies of religion, Kaufman explores emotional travesty - all the love and hate a man has for women and for himself.
This is the first of Kaufman's films not to be directed by Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") or Michel Gondry ("Human Nature," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). Both men are magicians who, in different ways, bridge the huge gap between serious play and serious ideas. On his own, Kaufman is rawer, blunter, sadder, and crueler in his satire - a tad more soulful, too.
His lack of varnish reminded me less of Jonze or Gondry and far more of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," grim comedies by Todd Solondz. But "Synecdoche" is a more affectingly forlorn film, and it manages to confidently exploit the essential suspense over whether Kaufman's ambition will ever hit a ceiling. Not this time. The sky, dark as it is, remains the limit.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston. com/ae/movienation.