When I think of Charlie Kaufman’s work in film over the past 10 years, I often think of Alice going down the rabbit hole straight into Wonderland. The tunnel into the mind of John Malkovich in Kaufman’s first feature is an obvious reference. He seems to have taken us further and further into the realm of the bizarre as he has become one of Hollywood’s best known and most creative screenwriters.
Kaufman, however, does not just make movies based on the fantasies of the world’s most devoted stoners. His films make powerful emotional connections, and their absurdity somehow only manages to highlight the profundity of Kaufman’s major themes: love, existence, and death. With Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman does not abandon his themes but rather their seamless incorporation into the madcap, nonsensical world of his films. What we are left with is something disjointed and indulgent that feels more comfortable lecturing rather than emotionally engaging its audience.
The world “synecdoche” (pronounced sih-NECK-duh-kee) means a whole standing in for the part, and Kaufman’s film, while epic in scope, is certainly about the journey of one individual: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Cotard is a regional theater director in New York who is given a genius grant for directing a production of Death of a Salesman with a cast of twentysomethings. Caden wants to use the money to do something important, since his life seems to be falling apart. His wife and young daughter have left him, and he is constantly reminded of his own mortality. He develops sores on his legs, his eyes don’t dilate, and he goes to rehab to restart his bodily functions.
Essentially, Kaufman employs just about every trick to make the audience understand that death is imminent. Cotard decides to create an ambitious theater piece in a large set of warehouses where he makes a scale version of New York City and hires millions of actors to play its inhabitants. This is the plot on its most basic level, but the movie contains many more subplots and complications. The film is certainly ambitious, and Kaufman is not at fault for that. Unfortunately, however, he clearly outlines these ambitions for the audience but does not meaningfully deliver on them. A film that cares so passionately about existence and death should certainly not seem so cold, shallow, or removed.
While there are a whole host of problematic scenes in Synecdoche, I think I can boil my anger and disappointment with the film down to one thing: Kaufman’s seemingly endless desire to tell rather than show. For someone who feels like he is dying, Caden is never at a loss for words. It seems like every 10 minutes or so he launches into a speech about how sad and lonely his life is or why he is afraid of dying. Rather than picking a few poignant moments to show Caden’s struggle, Kaufman chooses to saturate us with despair. These monologues say everything you need to know about the film’s themes, but they end up desensitizing the audience to them, crippling the entire story. Kaufman creates an essentially compelling story, but by putting the characters’ every feeling into words, he seems to be telling the audience they can only watch the film from a distance. In doing so, Kaufman seems to completely reject film as a visual medium.
Despite these problems, it seems strange that this style of storytelling completely failed. After all, there are some films that blatantly describe their themes in monologues and are not afraid to put despair into every frame. Perhaps what doomed Synecdoche was Kaufman’s choice not only write but also to direct the film. Kaufman’s past scripts have been interpreted by other directors, which has helped to ground his absurdity in some kind of plausibility. This film is just too much Kaufman, and the suspension of disbelief is much more difficult here than with his other works. Kaufman also does not engage with his camera very well, making the cinematography pallid and the angles common. The shooting style ultimately seems to jar with the film’s sensationalism, creating a paradox from which the film never fully recovers.
The film is not a total loss though; in its last 20 minutes, it does grasp the emotional complexity the preceding hours strove for. It also features strong performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton, who plays Caden’s true love, Hazel. Morton’s Hazel is the only aspect of the movie that is engaging from beginning to end, and she manages to hit all the character’s tiny emotional shifts.
In spite of its mistakes, Synecdoche is still worth seeing because it is ambitious, and there probably has never been or will ever be anything quite like it. This is a film that tries to be about everything, and while it fails in the process, it is still a rarity. The visuals and scope of New York City within the warehouse are stunning, and the sheer number of themes the movie manages to touch on in two hours is impressive. During its brief run in theaters, you may have the rare opportunity to see something that is flawed and mismanaged, but also incredibly original.