Synecdoche, New York – a contender for the most conceptual title for a movie since eXistenZ or Cocktail – should really have been christened ‘Kaufman Finds A Third Act’. Conventional wisdom decrees the multi award-winning American king of kook has never delivered a satisfying denouement to any of his surreal scripts. Yet that is what’s accomplished with the entire of Suh-neck-doh-kee. The high concept merges with the everyday, dragging the audience in to the extent that, when the credits roll, you’re sat trying to spot your own name and left mildly bewildered that the person next to you hasn’t spontaneously combusted.
A decade ago, Being John Malkovich established the general tone of former TV comedy writer Charlie Kaufman’s cinematic output: morose, self-absorbed, self-deprecating psychoanalysis peppered with uncomfortably humorous punchlines to the screwball events taking place. It made John Malkovich a synonym for reserved maniac and, along with the output of Wes Anderson, cleared the way for sunnier loser-takes-all existential tales such as Napoleon Dynamite and I Heart Fu… uh, Huckabees. Kaufman has since provided more of the same introverted diversions with Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation, and drafted the script for Cold War game show host biopic Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. This isn’t a man who draws a line between fiction and reality, preferring instead to jumble everything together and see what happens – survival of the most abstract. Philip K. Dick at open-mic night.
There are a number of objections that could be levelled at the story of Caden Cotard, an amateur theatre director bumbling his way through suburgatory in the almost-titular Schenectady, New York. Top of the list is that nothing makes sense in Caden’s world. It becomes very much his world when, using money from a provident creative grant, the protagonist increasingly seals himself and his actors away from the city inside an abandoned warehouse that resembles a giant Anderson shelter. There, a desperate attempt is made to gain control over his mounting worries by passing his daily responsibilities to the ever-growing cast of a new, ongoing play based on his life. Much of the film has only the fuzziest of logic to it, but that fuels the curious immersion the bizarre piece of fictional performance art generates. At times it comes across as though someone decided to swede a cloverfield version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine while they were supposed to be filming a season finale for Desperate Housewives.
Synecdoche, New York does cover a lot of the same territory as his other work, but Kaufman, intentionally or otherwise, knocks it out of the park only to have it circumnavigate the planet and smack into the back of his – now your – head. Whatever you may have heard about this film, it really is a platinum-selling mindjob that somehow manages the double whammy of escaping pretension and fostering a kind of vicarious soap opera involvement in the characters’ lives. A game cast adds to the impression that the audience has stumbled onto a grown-up version of Sesame Street. Largely a female ensemble, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, and Emily Watson all manage to wrap Caden – and by extension the whole film – around their collective little finger to the point that the protagonist considers becoming a woman.
Arguably the worst aspect of the movie is Catherine Keener, playing to type as Caden Cotard’s artist wife, an epic level uber-shrew who has an influence on the people around her comparable to that of Fat Man on Nagasaki. This is the same completely charmless persona Keener portrays with minor variation in every film she’s in (take a look at Being John Malkovich, S1m0ne, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin to see what I mean), and she interrupts this movie periodically for anyone who has seen her in something else by making the viewer wonder “Why is Catherine Keener crashing the set and ruining this?”
Caden Cotard’s play allows him distance from his own life, crucially his many romantic misadventures, but it also combines with a bemused, heartfelt performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman to establish the playwright as an avatar for everyone watching the movie in a more egalitarian retread of Kaufman’s earlier Malkovichian puppetry. You get the impression this is Charlie Kaufman’s It’s A Wonderful Life. An adult human being’s time on Earth sped-up to an easily digestible two hours, the film has no choice but to deal with abandonment, disappointment, mortality, and legacy, and yet mines from all those things a sense of humour and hope. I hate to say it, but Synecdoche, New York is genuinely affecting, and the closest thing anyone’s brain can get to a spring clean.
Synecdoche, New York was released in the UK on 15th of May