Until now Charlie Kaufman relied on others to bring his pretentiously convoluted scripts to the screen, but now he’s upped the ante by taking on the directorial duties himself, and the level of self-indulgence and painful obscurity has increased exponentially. From its cutesy-clever title down to a protracted and tedious finale, “Synecdoche, New York” is both interminable and terminally boring.
The basic narrative of the picture—which is something that can be described only in the loosest sense in a Kaufman movie—has to do with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the director of a modest theatre company in Schenecdaty, New York, who suddenly finds himself physically falling apart. Adding to his woes is the fact that his artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their little daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her; and a possible romantic connection with Hazel (Samantha Morton), his box-office manager, comes to nothing too.
Things change when he receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant that he decides to use to create a life-mirroring play in which a huge troupe of actors will perform simultaneous scenes in a miniature of New York City that he constructs in a massive warehouse. His preparations for the venture go on for years, during which time he hires a strange fellow (Tom Noonan) who’s been following him around surreptitiously to play Caden himself, and an actress (Emily Watson) to play Hazel. He also eventually hires a woman (Diane Wiest) to play a cleaning woman—he’s obsessed with cleaning, it seems, and often sees himself in that role—but eventually she’ll rise to a more important role. The play, of course, is always being rehearsed and never being performed, as Caden grows older and feebler and must deal with the passing of his parents and the travails of the grown-up Olive while having to confront his own imminent mortality.
How much of this is supposed to represent reality and how much Caden’s artistic vision or psychological hallucination is anybody’s guess. But clearly what Kaufman’s trying to get at is the inevitability of decrepitude and death and the necessity for each of us to come to terms with it. As the titular part of speech suggests, Caden represents every man, just as his model represents Manhattan and his play represents human life and so on. The doubling effect also extends into what little we see of the play, which reflects “actual” experiences and, of course, features “fictional” equivalents of the author and other “real” people. And it’s a commentary on how art is essentially a torturously reductionist process, a point made not only by Caden’s mini-New York but by Adele’s tiny paintings, which are so small one has to look through a magnifying glass to see them.
There are a few moments in “Synecdoche” that afford the sort of weird, quirkily amusing nonsense that Kaufman revels in. The initial conversations with little Olive, for instance, are pretty funny, and the scene of Mr. Cotard’s funeral (featuring a coffin reminiscent of the joke at the end of Bryan Forbes’s priceless comedy “The Wrong Box”) is a briefly brilliant bit of black comedy. But for the most part the picture is a glum and dreary disquisition on the desperation of the human condition and the ultimate futility of the artistic impulse, presented in a maddeningly ponderous style. It grows so irritatingly opaque and heavy over the course of two hours that you may come to feel that one of its odder moments—in which Hazel and her husband purchase a burning house and move into it despite its being filled with smoke—might be taken as an apt analogy for the act of buying a ticket for the movie and settling in to watch it.
Given all that, it hardly seems to make much difference that Kaufman has assembled an imposing cast to flesh out his ideas. This isn’t one of Hoffman’s best performances—the character is far too drab and sullen for him really to shine—but he does his best with it, which is all one can ask. Among the others, Morton and Watson come off best, but even they often look puzzled by what they’re asked to do. Keener, as has been the case so frequently of late, is pretty much wasted. You have to give production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Adam Stockhausen and the visual effects team led by Mark Russell high marks for accomplishing so much on what was probably a very limited budget, but Fred Elmes’s cinematography could have used a dash of imagination, and Jon Brion’s score doesn’t register very strongly.
One can appreciate the effort of any artist to think so large as to try to encompass The Meaning of Life in his work. But all that Kaufman seems to conclude on the subject is a much more elaborate version of the old nostrum that life’s a bitch and then you die. As a result, in the case of “Synecdoche, New York”—to garble Plato’s version of Socrates—the examined life is not worth watching.