The end of the world has always appealed to movie audiences, no more so than now that the prospect is looking more and more likely. Maybe it’s easier to ponder the demise of things in general than oneself in particular. In his hypnotic, infuriating, punishing new film, Charlie Kaufman tries to re-create both experiences. No fun date at the movies, it’s the very opposite of escapist entertainment. There’s no way out of Kaufman’s mind and its morose delectation of decay and doom, except via death. I can admire the film’s philosophical ambition, its formal ingenuity, and its in-jokes that repeated viewings will, I’m sure, never exhaust. But as for enjoyment, well, something is missing.
VIDEO: The trailer for Synecdoche, New York
Maybe more of the surreal humor that filled Being John Malkovich with ebullience. Or maybe characters who are more appealing than Caden Cotard. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hysterical variation on his character in Savages, with a nod to Steve Coogan in Hamlet 2, Caden has the thankless task of heading the drama department in a small college in Schenectady, New York. His wife, Adele Lack (designated shrew Catherine Keener), is a narcissistic artist (her microscopic canvases are one of the better running gags) who can’t stand her husband. She eventually flees with their child, Olive, and her lover, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Berlin, where she enjoys a triumphantly successful career.
Caden, however, still has options. For some reason, women can’t get enough of him — maybe it’s his penchant for weeping before having sex and then proving impotent. Hazel (Samantha Morton), who works the box office at the theater where Caden’s student production of Death of a Salesman is being staged, is interested. So are the MacArthur people, who honor him with their $100,000 “genius grant.” Encouraged by Hazel, Caden sets out on a lifelong, unfulfilled love affair, and funded by the grant, he heads to New York City to begin his lifelong, unfinishable magnum opus — re-creating his life on a giant set in an endlessly expanding vacant factory.
Up to this point, Synecdoche has possessed an uncanny subjectivity, with time passing almost imperceptibly from Caden’s point of view — suddenly it’s a week or a month or years later. Odd details that emerge on the periphery — for example, an animated Caden appearing on a TV cartoon show — suggest that the film is all a dream, or that Caden suffers from paranoia and delusions of reference. Kaufman in these first 40 minutes or so evokes by turns the experience of nightmare, madness, day-to-day living, and then all three.
But once Caden sets his mind to setting his mind on stage, all spontaneity vanishes. The paradox posed by his project is unresolvable and tedious: if he is to re-create his life as a stage production, he must also re-create his attempt to recreate his life as a stage production and re-create his re-creation of his attempt. In short, actors must play characters in the film and other actors must play those actors in a theoretically infinite regression.
Meanwhile, as Caden’s navel gazing spirals nautilus-like to inanity, the world outside — if there is such — is breaking down into scenes resembling outtakes from Blindness or 28 Weeks Later. Hence the title: synecdoche being a figure of speech referring to a part standing for a whole or vice versa, the film depicts the individual representing the universe. Too bad that in this version the loss of neither seems worth mourning.