When he appeared on the scene with the screenplay for 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” Charlie Kaufman instantly emerged as a critical darling – inventive, quirky, sly, funny, heartfelt. He cemented his reputation with “Human Nature” (though the film itself was unduly maligned), “Adaptation” (the absolute model for meta-movie-making), “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (one of this century’s most overpraised movies).
Kaufman not only wrote but took up the directorial reins for “Synecdoche, New York,” a movie he had written for Spike Jonze (who apparently has problems of his own trying to wrestle “Where the Wild Things Are” to the big screen). Perhaps another director could have pointed out that this gauzily indistinct film is flimsier than a cobweb and that the script needed work before trying to capture it on celluloid.
First things first: Synecdoche is a literary term that sort of rhymes with Schenectady, where part of the movie is set. The word itself is never spoken in the film. It refers to a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole – or vice versa. That’s part of an abstruse joke that Kaufman seems to be telling to himself, while mostly leaving the audience out of it.
The story centers on Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director who feels trapped at the professional repertory theater in Schenectady where he’s staging “Death of a Salesman.” He lives with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their young daughter and is one of those self-involved artistes who believe they are destined to something greater than simply restaging old plays for undemanding audiences in the hinterlands (don’t we all?).
Caden is a barely functioning adult. Though he’s at home in the theater, he’s like a baby when he’s at home, where everything is a crisis that demands Adele’s attention so Caden can focus on his own deep thoughts. Adele, who paints disturbingly detailed portraits the size of postage stamps, finally dumps him, turning a trip to Berlin for a show of her work into a de facto divorce by simply not returning.
When the dazzlingly tart Keener departs, she takes the movie with her. Unfortunately, we’re only 40 minutes in, and it’s a long, downhill death-spiral from there.
Up until that point, there have been hallucinatory moments that intrude on Caden’s reality, which are like spice for what seems to be an intriguing look at one artist’s crisis of the soul. A ghostly figure – an elderly bald man (who turns out to be actor Tom Noonan) – seems to shadow Caden, though always just out of sight. And Caden keeps seeing images of himself in inappropriate places: as a cartoon character in one of his daughter’s animated shows, for example.
But when Caden is forced to function on his own, he seems ready to collapse – until he receives a MacArthur genius grant and decides to mount his masterwork in New York. That work – words like “brutally honest” escape his lips in describing it – essentially amounts to creating a mirror of his and his acting company’s life, having them live their lives as though life is a performance that needs a Method approach to truly understand it.
Oh, there’s more – much more – including a mirror-like roundelay involving Caden’s affair with the brassy Hazel (Samantha Morton), his subsequent affair with the actress (Emily Watson) hired to play Hazel – and his jealousy when Sammy (Noonan), who he casts as Caden, gets involved with the real Hazel.
Yet the darkly comic pessimism that informed “Malkovich” and “Adaptation” never coalesces here. If anything, “Synecdoche,” in its effort to say something about art, artists and creativity, ends up instead as almost two hours that begins with Kaufman buttonholing the audience and saying, “Let me tell you about this dream I had.”
I love Hoffman as an actor and thought he was robbed last year when he was nominated for an Oscar his terrific comic turn in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” rather than the more unsettling performances he gave in both “The Savages” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He does his best to balance the idea of Caden as a whiny narcissist and as visionary trapped in a decaying body (the name Cotard is a reference to a medical condition, Cotard’s delusion, which refers to a mental disorder in which the subject feels he doesn’t exist or is decaying and dying). But Kaufman mostly asks him to drag himself around as though he’s suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.
The rest of the cast – Watson, Morton, Keener, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest – well, what can you say? They work hard, they commit to their roles – but they’ve signed on to a lost cause, a movie that seems to disappear farther up its own whimsy the longer it goes on.