Staring into the abyss through a kaleidoscope, Charlie Kaufman‘s “Synecdoche, New York” sees ecstatic, innumerable facets in the depths. Another of Kaufman’s Alice in Wonderland narratives, his first directorial effort is more gnarled and coiled than his scripts for Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation“) and Michel Gondry (“Human Nature,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind“), yet also more emotionally direct. Impossible to fully grasp on first pass, the film nevertheless has a rigorous — and perversely funny — through-line of extreme anxiety and sorrow. “I won’t accept anything but the brutal truth,” says his protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). “Brutal, brutal,” he repeats, hammering home the cliched, self-conscious overstatement, but he means it every time.
A queasy passage through one man’s warped perspective, the film rests on Hoffman’s sad-sack sincerity to justify and motivate its dream logic of hyperbole and deadpan implausibility. The latest installment in a thick back catalogue of lonely blubberers, Caden is Hoffman’s most complex and moving creation — a man burdened by infinite layers of arrogance and disgrace.
Spinning his wheels mounting a production of “Death of a Salesman” in Schenectady, New York, Caden nurses a nagging assortment of physical ailments while ignoring the boredom of his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener, as blithely ball-busting as you’d expect), an ambitious painter of microscopic Francis Bacon-like portraits. He clings to vaguely romantic notions of his marriage and art despite sobering evidence to the contrary. After Adele flees to Berlin with their daughter Olive, his obsession over an unlikely reunion ruins his chances at happiness with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a beguilingly forward (and immensely stacked) soul mate, and Claire (Michelle Williams), a pert young actress whose implausible affections he callously takes for granted.
Bestowed a MacArthur genius grant (one of many sly nods to the un-refracted world), he unbridles his ambition and psyche, embarking on a runaway production of “something big and true. Or something.” He rents a vast abandoned warehouse in Manhattan, recruits hundreds of actors and extras, and constructs sets inside of sets for a meta-textured dramatization of the self — while neglecting to invite an audience. Caden hires an albino stalker (Tom Noonan) to play himself, casts an actress to play Hazel (Emily Watson), and carries us down a rabbit hole where space collapses and expands, and time does the same.
As its tongue-twisting title infers, the film makes hay with slender variations on language — multiple meanings, misuses, misrepresentations and misinterpretations. Rather than a means of precise expression, language here manages only to obscure and conspire — and confirm Caden’s very worst fears. When Olive inquires about his unsightly skin rash, Caden explains that he has sycosis, which sounds like but isn’t the same as psychosis. “You could have both,” she suggests. “I don’t,” he says, but it’s cold comfort. During a particularly surreal session with his therapist (Hope Davis), he asks about someone who has committed suicide. “Why did he kill himself?” he asks. “Why did you?” she responds. What was that? “Why would you?” she then says, same intonation. Did Caden mishear? Did we? Is Caden actually dead and we’re in the beyond? Or was the therapist just screwing with us all? Kaufman creates a level of disquiet that deeply unsettles even as it amuses. Outdoing Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, he raises the comedy of the hypochondriac’s dilemma to the realm of grim universal truth.
To describe any of the performances in “Synecdoche, New York” as deadpan presumes comedic intent that may exist on the page — and in effect — but every line is delivered sincerely, and every scene plays out as life or death. As director, Kaufman doesn’t have the whimsical or ironic touch of Gondry or Jonze, making “Synecdoche, New York” a much heavier affair. Wherever they stand in the funhouse, regardless of absurd dress or situation, Kaufman’s actors sell the truth of each particular moment. As a result, and seemingly against all reason, “Synecdoche, New York” has a crashing emotional power. Masked in age-enhancing latex, awkwardly enjoining themselves beneath the sheets and coughing away smoke as the surrounding house burns down, Hoffman and Morton exchange vows of love and regret, and somehow it’s the saddest, loveliest thing I’ve seen all year.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]