Two predictions: First, you won’t see a motion picture this year better, more brilliant or more ambitious than this one. And second, it won’t win the Oscar (or any other major award) for Best Picture. In one sense, this is a shame. In another, it’s probably as it should be. Can you imagine a world where everybody is on the same wavelength as Charlie Kaufman?
Synecdoche, New York marks the directorial debut of the famously mind-bending scribe behind Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. He wrote the script for this film as well, and I do not consider it a stretch to call it his most wonderfully audacious to date. Writing something of this caliber and scope requires artistic vision of the highest order. Directing it on top of that is practically proof of superpowers.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb in the role of Caden Cotard, a director of regional theater living upstate with his 4-year-old daughter Olive and his wife Adele, an aspiring painter played by Catherine Keener. The early scenes have an “Ozzie-and-Harriet”-meets-Eraserhead feel to them. Both parents are too self-absorbed, for example, to take much notice when the little girl’s bowel movement glows a radioactive green one morning. Later, in couples therapy, Adele admits to fantasizing about her husband’s dying and thereby allowing her a fresh start. “Caden, does that make you feel awful?” inquires the psychiatrist (Hope Davis). “Yes.” “Good.”
Life is one perplexing surprise after another for Caden. He believes that he and his family are about to spend a couple of restorative months in Berlin, where his wife is having an exhibition of her meticulously crafted, postage-stamp-sized work. Instead, he learns over breakfast that Adele believes it would be a good idea for her and Olive to make the trip alone. The next thing he knows, they’re out of his life.
Meanwhile, a number of developments on the home front: Caden catches glimpses of himself on TV in cartoons and pharmaceutical spots. He contracts a baffling array of health problems — facial pustules, tremors, seizures and finally the failure of his autonomic nervous system, necessitating biofeedback treatments to teach him techniques for salivation and swallowing. At one point, he breaks down and weeps over the loss of his little girl with the aid of eye-drops that substitute for the tears he can no longer produce. Kaufman has taken Woody Allen’s long-running hypochondria joke and morphed it into surreal and moving art.
And then, the most unexpected development of all: Caden is awarded a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Asked by his therapist how he intends to use the windfall, he replies, “I’m afraid I’m going to die. I want to do something important while I’m still here.” “Yes,” Davis concurs, “that would be the time to do it.”
The movie then goes meta in a way and on a scale beyond anything ever seen on screen. The director moves to New York City determined to stage a “massive theater piece of uncompromising honesty . . . something big and true and tough” into which he can finally put his “real self.” The only drawback? He hasn’t the faintest clue who that is or what he’s doing.
He rents an unimaginably vast old warehouse, hires thousands of actors, and builds a replica of the city just outside the warehouse doors. The goal? Caden wants art not merely to imitate life but to become it, and thus to unlock its central mystery. “That’s what I want to explore,” he explains to his cast. “We’re all hurtling toward death, yet here we are for the moment alive, each of us knowing we’re going to die and each of us believing we won’t.”
For the next three or four decades, Caden rehearses, rewrites, and rehearses some more. The monumental undertaking is by definition impossible for him to complete, since it loops most of its material from his own life. He works alongside the people closest to him and then casts actors to play them, living out scenarios they have already lived together. For instance, Caden hires an actor (Tom Noonan) to play the role of Caden — and then, since he is effectively the director, Noonan hires a third Caden. You might think the wormhole couldn’t get a whole lot deeper, but Kaufman has more up his wizard’s sleeve. Before the credits roll, Dianne Wiest has taken on the Caden role and is directing the real Caden’s every move through an earpiece.
It’s tough to put the brakes on a review of a picture this staggeringly good. There are so many more things I’d like to tell you about — understated displays of imagination as flipped out as anything ever put on film, glimpses into the human heart as true and moving. Kaufman swings for the bleachers and succeeds in creating a head trip that’s both profound and timeless, though never at the expense of a good time. Countless touches are as darkly comic as anything I’ve seen this year. Take the scene where a character looks at homes with the help of a realtor who plays down the fact that the smoky place she’s showing is permanently on fire. “The sellers are very motivated,” she deadpans.
In the same way Caden’s masterpiece can never contain everything he means it to encompass, no review of Kaufman’s can possibly suggest the full measure of its triumph. Fortunately for you, you get to discover that for yourself.