If it weren't for Charlie Kaufman
, the phrase "famous screenwriter" would be an oxymoron. Kaufman has won an Oscar and is the only writer in Hollywood whose name is used to promote movies, but most people, even true movie geeks, probably couldn't pick him out of a police lineup. From Being John Malkovich
and Adaptation to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, each of Kaufman's movies is a singular experience -- quirky, affecting, and humorous. Kaufman's renown as a screenwriter even surpasses that of Quentin Tarantino
's back in the mid-nineties, when he penned a string of critical and box-office hits that included Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction. Tarantino's real acclaim, however, came as a result of his work behind the camera, not the keyboard. So it's no surprise to find Kaufman making the same transition in Synecdoche, New York -- his debut film as a director.
Synecdoche (sih-NECK-doh-kee) is a word whose meaning is too long to type out here -- and isn't essential to understanding the film, anyway. But it's just the type of word you might throw in the title of your first movie as a director if you wanted to let people know in advance they're in for something offbeat. And Synecdoche, New York is nothing if not determinedly offbeat. Article continues below
It starts out like a strange little domestic drama. Phillip Seymour Hoffman
plays the role of Caden Cotard, a frumpy, unhappy community theater director who's convinced he's dying. Indeed, one minute he's expelling rust-colored urine and the next minute ugly pustules are sprouting on his face and legs. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener
), isn't too concerned, though. She's on her own trip. She makes tiny paintings that one must look at through a magnifying glass to see clearly. During the first good stretch of Synecdoche, New York, one gets the feeling that the movie's central drama will play out in Caden and Adele's cramped upstate New York home. But that sense proves wrong.
Synecdoche, New York's ambitions go far beyond a suburban living room. This is a movie that wants to contain all of life, everything. If that sounds impossible, you're right. It is. But that doesn't stop Kaufman from trying to cram it all inside.
As fast as you can say auf wiedersehen, Adele leaves Caden and moves to Germany, taking Olive, their daughter, with her. At this point Caden begins an affair with the box-office girl (Samantha Morton
) who works at the theater showing his play, and who happens to live in a house that's always on fire -- literally. Soon after that, Caden wins a MacArthur "genius" grant (betcha didn't see that coming!) and begins work on a play that grows as big as Manhattan -- once again, literally. And so it goes, with characters dying terrible deaths and others reappearing after long absences, with wild changes in circumstance and unheralded shifts in tone, characters falling in and out of love and other characters disappearing never to be seen again. It all adds up to something in the end, but by that time, it's impossible to care.
Kaufman wants his movie to matter. He wants it to mean more than the average film, even more than the average good film. Perhaps he should be applauded for his immodest ambitions. After all, it's not many movies these days that try to chart new territory. But his film doesn't make good on its aims. It plays more like a catalog of anxieties and catastrophes than a movie. Kaufman creates a world where love and human connection are impossible, and in the absence of hope and joy, there are no are no outcomes to root for and no tragedies to despair.
Synecdoche, New York is an unapologetically intellectual film, but one that's aloof and emotionally distant, as if Kaufman were looking at his characters through the wrong end of a telescope and could only see their pain. Kaufman is no doubt a talented writer. Someday he may even be a great director. But Synecdoche, New York doesn't work as it's supposed to. It sets out to encompass all of what makes us human but only finds room for what makes us unhappy.