Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The parallel universe created in Synecdoche, New York is a mind-bending place. It’s a world where a young woman dwells in a house engulfed by slow-burning flames for decades. It’s a landscape where a man is robbed of his ability to produce tears or saliva by a fungus and where a woman becomes a world-renowned artist for creating miniature pieces of art that can only be fully glimpsed by viewing them through microscope-like glasses.
In the directorial debut by Charlie Kaufman, the inventive screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we are swept up in the downward spiraling life of playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A bathroom faucet explodes like a geyser, injuring his head. His wife, Adele, fantasizes that Caden has died before she decides to leave him. Then the playwright must wade through a health-care system reminiscent of the bureaucratic labyrinth in Brazil after being stricken by a mysterious ailment.
When things can’t get any worse for Caden, he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant and decides to do “something big and true and tough.” This ends up being a massive theater piece with scores of actors on a sprawling set in a giant Quonset hut-like building.
For Kaufman, it’s a chance to explore the life of the artist and the creative process again like he first did in 2002’s Adaptation. He addresses the self-doubt of artists, the honesty of art, the creator’s role as God and, most frequently, the messy blurring of lines between an artist’s life and his creations.
It sometimes feels like Kaufman is hammering away at Shakespeare’s theory that “all the world’s a stage.” But he also approaches the idea in fresh ways that make it seem novel and new. One especially effective set of scenes finds Caden’s love interest, Hazel (Samantha Morton), whispering to the playwright how he can seduce her like a director giving stage directions to an actor. Another finds Caden communicating to his second wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), through an actor – even though the playwright is just a few feet away from her.
Kaufman infuses the script with humor and writerly wit. Bits of dialogue twist and then sometimes turn on themselves, like where Claire says, “Knowing that you don’t know is the first and most essential step to knowing, you know?”
The film reaches another level of the surreal when a man volunteers to play Caden himself in his sprawling theater piece. “Hire me, and you’ll see who you truly are,” the enigmatic man says. From there, Synecdoche, New York dives further into the metaphysical as an actor comes on to play the actor playing Caden.
A telling scene comes later where Caden tries to parse the meaning of a confusing book that his psychologist wrote. The playwright tells the psychologist (played by a leggy Hope Davis) that he is not sure he is “getting the book.” “It’s getting you,” she counters.
If that means that its meaning crawls under Caden’s skin despite being impossible to unravel completely, then Synecdoche, New York – which is at times illuminating and at other times confounding – will have the same effect on audiences.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (3 ½) Directed by Charlie Kaufman • Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Michelle Williams. R, 124 min. At the Osio Cinemas.