Shakespeare's words "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players" are at the heart of Synecdoche, New York, a meditative, sprawling mindtrip that is in equal measure soporific, illuminative and fascinating. While in no way as naturally talented a director as the visionaries that have previously given form and color to his screenplays (Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich; Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), surrealist scribe Charlie Kaufman proves capable enough in carrying off such an ambitious directorial debut.
The film follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a regional theater director whose crumbling marriage to painter Adele (Catherine Keener) is complicated by his own struggles with an unnamed illness that manifests itself in sporadic symptoms. After Adele abandons him and moves to Germany with friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), Caden is awarded a "genius" grant and sets out to create a theater piece that mimics the fluctuations and impermeability of everyday existence.
As he begins staging this work in a mammoth warehouse, his grasp of time and reality become secondary to his obsession, and he eventually becomes so immersed in the play that he casts actors in the roles of himself and his assistant Hazel (Samantha Morton), as they direct a play within a play. Rehearsals continue for 20, 30 years as Caden becomes ever more enmeshed with his production, tangling his personal and professional life into its neurotic web.
The film's title not only phonetically apes the main protagonist's hometown of Schenectady, it also verbally encapsulates Synecdoche's primary conceit. Partially defined, it alludes to a common trope where the part is used to reference the whole, such as when someone is asked to lend a hand.
Similarly, Caden believes focusing on the daily happenstance of ordinary people will illustrate and reveal greater universal truths. The examination of this minutia takes place in a scaled set that grows to identically replicate the outside world. Another fancy bit of wordplay is Kaufman's choice of Cotard as Caden's surname. In psychology, Cotard's Syndrome is a condition in which someone holds the belief either that they are dead or that they do not exist, both of which are asserted of Caden at times.
Kaufman never disappoints when it comes to writing intriguing, thought-provoking cinema, but never has one of his films necessitated quite so much rumination. At just more than two hours, it's a long, and occasionally tedious contemplation of love, art and death, punctuated with welcome moments of levity. As a director, Kaufman fares well, but suffers in comparison with past collaborators. Visual excitement is rare and events such as an uncommented-on fire that continually rages in one character's house, might not have stuck out so awkwardly had they been grounded in a richer cinematic framework.
Gathering a stunning cast that includes Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest and Michelle Williams, the film is so packed with powerful performers it practically has to limit them to five scenes apiece. Hoffman gives a stellar performance, the depths of his madness being uncovered so carefully it appears to be the only choice. He is the least lovable of Kaufman's protagonists, but by far the most pitiable. Wiest's brief appearance, performed mostly in voice-over, is simultaneously lulling and electric, and Morton revels in the role of the girlish, devoted Hazel.
Kaufman is a rare specimen in the filmmaking world. With a dynamite cast, a great production team (including Spike Jonze) and a well-penned script, Kaufman would have to be as inept as Ed Wood to flub this film. Fortunately, his talents extend in many areas. While Synecdoche, New York cannot compare with Kaufman's previous works in terms of entertainment value, it stands as a riveting and earnestly emotive work of a maturing artist. Now playing at The Flicks.