Charlie Kaufman’s new movie: self-indulgent twaddle or surreal masterpiece?
As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has become a byword for cinematic jiggery-pokery, a master of tricky, self-reflexive storytelling who has bamboozled viewers with his scripts for such mind-bending movies as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For Synecdoche, New York, his first film as a director, he’s come up with an even more head-spinning tale: the story of a theatre director who decides to re-create his entire life on stage, and then discovers he must re-create the re-creation, and so on and on, seemingly ad infinitum.
Before seeing Synecdoche, I’d been warned that it was pretentious and self-indulgent beyond belief. The film’s name alone is almost enough to make you veer sharply away from any cinema displaying it on its marquee – the title’s a slippery play on words involving an oddly named town in upstate New York (Schenectady) and the term (synecdoche) for a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole, or vice versa; as in “heads of state” or “use your head”. Attempt to get your own head round that and you may need to lie in a darkened room with a cold compress clamped to your brow.
On getting to grips with Kaufman’s movie, however, I discovered that it might well be a bizarre brain-twister, but it’s one that is also melancholy, insightful and, surprisingly, very moving.
There’s no getting away from it, though: the plot is surreal. Philip Seymour Hoffman, presumably Kaufman’s on-screen alter ego, is a 40-year-old theatre director named Caden Cotard who lives in, yes, Schenectady, New York. His marriage to his artist wife (Catherine Keener) is disintegrating, as is his home’s plumbing, he’s troubled by a series of mysterious ailments and his therapist (Hope Davis) is more interested in selling him her self-help books than listening to his woes.
Then he wins a MacArthur fellowship, a ‘genius grant’ (yes, they do exist), and decides to use the money to mount a gigantically ambitious theatrical project that will give artistic shape to his messy life. To this end, he buys a vast warehouse in New York in which he constructs a huge simulacrum of the city outside. Then he begins assembling an ever-growing cast of actors. He has actors playing himself, his second wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), and his assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton), and then realises that he requires additional actors to play the actors playing himself, Claire, Hazel… The years pass (17 of them); the great work-in-progress rolls on; and there’s still no sign of an audience…
Having read this description, you may well feel the need to lie in a darkened room with a cold compress clamped to your brow, but stay with me, Kaufman’s movie isn’t simply a portrayal of an artist disappearing up his own fundament; it actually deals with such universal themes as the difficulty of relationships, the pain of growing old and the fear of death. If you engage with the movie on its own terms then even its oddest, most surreal conceits – such as the home that is permanently on fire – make a weird kind of sense. And with truthful, touching performances from Hoffman and his co-stars, it’s easy to connect with the people on screen, even if we do find ourselves lost now and then in the coils and convolutions of Cotard’s life and art.