How do you go about making art that encompasses the human condition? And if you're crazy enough to try it, where do you stop? In a world so packed, so teeming full of people, what part of your life or another's can you reduce to an extra or a subplot? And how will you know you've succeeded until you're dead yourself?
Grandiose questions like that don't cross the minds of most people, but they seem to preoccupy Charlie Kaufman, who has taken the occasion of his directorial debut to try to sum up everything he believes about life, art, and the intersection of the two. Synecdoche New York could be written off as navel-gazing if its scope weren't so huge, or forgotten as an arty disaster if not for the occasional moments of clarity and heartbreak that made Kaufman's other screenplays, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, such a success. The truly committed will find something redeeming in this jumble, but the payoff isn't really worth the slog of getting there.
The story starts in upstate Schenectady, New York, where Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a marginally successful local theater director married to a slightly more successful painter (Catherine Keener). It's a given that the two are miserable, and before too long the wife has taken off to Berlin with their young daughter Olive, leaving Caden at home to strike up flirtations with both the theater's box office manager Hazel (Samantha Morton) and aspiring actress Claire (Michelle Williams). This comes between bouts of moping and hypochondria, which we see through graphic visualizations of gum surgery and bowel movements.
Time moves quickly, and before long Caden has received a MacArthur grant that gives him money to create his grand opus: a play taking place in real-time, about real people, set in an ever-expanding model of New York City built inside a warehouse. It's unclear when the entire cast moves from Schenectady to New York, or how long after his wife leaves that Caden marries Claire, or what the hell happens to Jennifer Jason Leigh's character, who develops a German accent after some time in Berlin.
The second half of the story is devoted to Caden's late-in-life romance with Hazel, whom he hires as his stage manager and is around so frequently she becomes an extension of himself. The movie, which has been punctuated with absurdist and self-deprecating humor throughout, takes a deep plunge into melancholy, as Caden faces the deaths of most everyone he loves, and eventually--maybe?-- his own. It's not really clear what happens near the end there, except that Dianne Wiest is involved.
It is satisfying to let yourself float through Kaufman's twisty dreamscape, where characters live in houses that are perpetually burning down, TV cartoons are specifically about your life, and actors are devoted enough to stick with an unfinished play for 17 years, and longer. But when you get to the point where it's all supposed to add up, there's nothing there. Caden seems to finally know how to wrap up his epic story, but he's not sharing that information with the audience.
Hoffman is good, as are the women whose roles get a chance to stand out amid the narrative corkscrews-- Morton, Leigh, and Emily Watson, briefly, as Hazel's double. And Charlie Kaufman is still a national treasure-- seriously--- and anything he produces is worth attention, for the opportunity to spend some time in his marvelous, tricky brain. But Synecdoche, New York, with its pretentious title and constant theme of artistic torment, isn't satisfying for either has fans or regular moviegoers. It'll have its champions, for sure, but they'll mostly be loyally sticking by a director and writer who is capable of far better.
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