Posted: 10/19/2008


Synecdoche, New York


by Jason Coffman

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Because he’s such a reclusive figure, it’s temping to assign traits of his characters and films to Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has managed to successfully avoid the press, appearing only once on The Charlie Rose Show in 2004 and otherwise keeping out of the spotlight entirely. So while we have the films he has written, and now one he has directed, we still don’t know all that much about Kaufman himself. And as brilliant as Synecdoche, New York is, we have to hope that Kaufman is nowhere near as miserable as his protagonist.

Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, incredible as always) is a theatre director whose radical take on Death of a Salesman gains him newfound fame, as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant. Unfortunately for Caden, this comes around the same time he is afflicted with an unknown disease that causes his autonomic functions (pupils dilating and contracting, salivating, tearing, etc.) to stop working. Caden, apparently already a severe hypochondriac, finds himself confronting actual health problems that are considerably stranger than any he might have imagined. This puts a further strain on his marriage to painter Adele Lack (Kaufman regular Catherine Keener), who decides that Caden should not accompany her and their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein, ridiculously adorable) to Berlin for her next exhibit.

As Caden’s personal life is thrown into flux, his sense of time begins to break down as well. The film becomes more and more confusing and disorienting, brilliantly mirroring Caden’s perception. He decides to use his grant to stage a massive project: he rents out a warehouse of enormous, almost Lovecraftian proportions in which to build a complete, working city populated with characters played out by actors from a framework provided by Caden. Most of the characters are based on people in Caden’s life, eventually including Sam Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who plays Caden himself. Sam gets the part by appearing at an audition and confessing that he’s been following Caden around for over twenty years. His appearance and casting creates even more chaos and confusion in the world of the play and in Caden’s real life. There are hints that the world at large is in even worse shape: at one point some years into the project, people begin begging Caden to be let into the warehouse because “It’s bad out here.”

There’s no question that his is Kaufman’s most ambitious, and most difficult, film. We follow Caden through decades of his life as he suffers loss, grief, abandonment, regret, and all manner of miseries. There is a strong undercurrent of black humor, but more than any of Kaufman’s other films, the sadness at the core of his other works is right there on the surface. It’s often difficult to empathize with Caden, who seems incapable of being happy about anything, or believing good things can happen to him. This somewhat uncomfortably recalls Kaufman’s depiction of himself in Adaptation, played by Nicholas Cage as overweight, unattractive, and cripplingly neurotic. Caden is all these things and more, absolutely and unwaveringly self-centered to the point that many characters disappear from his life entirely and he has no concept of the world outside his project.

Still, it may be that Kaufman is using Cotard as almost a parody of himself. Caden lets nothing but misery in, and as he becomes more and more unhappy his notes for the cast of his huge play become relentlessly bleak (“You were raped last night,” “Your mother died yesterday,” etc.) and his search for “truth” seems to leave no room for the possibility of happiness. Perhaps Caden is a comment by Kaufman on writers and artists who wallow in their own miseries, convinced that this is the only truth. While the people around him try their best to make him happy, Caden can see only the things that he has lost and the people who have abandoned him. His intermittent relationship with Hazel (Samantha Morton, in a beautiful performance) seems to offer his best chance at happiness or some measure of normalcy, but Caden remains emotionally tied to his past failures.

Synecdoche, New York is an exceptionally sad, often disturbing, and emotionally exhausting film with little relief from humor. It’s beautiful and surreal, and clearly director Spike Jonze had the concept of Kaufman’s world nailed down: visually, Synecdoche, New York is similar to the deceptively plain and “realistic” look of Being John Malkovich. It relies less on the sort of playful surrealism that often marks Kaufman’s work, but still has its share of strangeness (most notably the enormous warehouse and a character who buys and lives in a burning house). While there’s no question that Synecdoche, New York is extremely dark and often heartbreaking, it’s also as exciting as ever to be given a peek into Charlie Kaufman’s mind… or what he perhaps wants us to think is a peek into his mind.

Jason Coffman is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.

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