The Joys and Confusions of Charlie Kaufman’s Brain

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Synecdoche, New York
Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Opens Oct. 24 (Sony Pictures Classics)

“Peculiar” or “avant-garde” do not seem to sum up the curious fixations that make up the screenwriting of Charlie Kaufman. Beginning with Being John Malcovich, filmgoers have come to expect no one else to come close to what he does, whether you call it “alternate reality comedic self-loathing” or “existential absurdist ennui” or anything else.

When he reached, thus far, the peak of his screenwriting powers with Adaptation–starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, both bravely assaying fascinating but extremely unflattering roles–one came to expect an event each time a new film of his reached release. With Synecdoche, New York, which began as a supposed horror film Kaufman was to write for his director of choice, Spike Jonze, all the Kaufmanesque qualities are present: terrific performances from top actors, dark, death-obsessed humor and a mindbending premise.

In this case, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden, a stage director in Schenectady, New York, who feels little passion for his projects and is more taken with his deteriorating health than his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) or his young daughter Olive. The dissolution of that union is coupled with Caden winning a MacArthur grant and using an enormous warehouse in New York City to recreate scenes from his life, with scores of actors, in an effort to understand it.

Scenes as they happen are recreated in the warehouse, including Caden’s seduction by the offbeat Hazel ( a marvelously idiosyncratic Samantha Morton), a later marriage to one of his actresses, Claire (Michelle Williams) and the use of a potentially non-existent cleaning lady-cum-actress (Dianne Wiest) who inevitably gives Caden directions at the end of his project and life.

There are many typically daffy visual jokes that Kaufman inserts, including a constantly smoldering house that Hazel lives in, and commentaries on Caden’s desperately unhappy life on animated programs on TV. As with Kaufman’s work in general, there is much to mull over but the great difference between Synecdoche, New York and the rest of Kaufman’s wonderfully warped work is that here, he is the director and no was able to help him prune and shape his hallucinatory perambulations or tonally unify the entire work.

Thus, we do not have the tightly knit internal logic of a film like Adaptation or the surreal but cogent The Truman Show, in which a seemingly impossible world unfolds with acceptable progress. The most basic problem is that a MacArthur grant would not fund a Caden or anyone else for a massive art project for the rest of one’s life. And Kaufman is not really interested in seeing how anything outside of Caden’s orbit might affect this utterly self-involved navel-gazing. By extending the timeline of the film to Caden’s entire life and never showing insight on the part of the character, the director-writer exhausts us and the titillation of his clever concept grows wearying.

What Kaufman does right is bring in excellent actors and Hoffman’s power onscreen, whether crying before sex or being unable to respond to the cruelty of Keener as his wife (And isn’t it time Keener stopped playing the uber-bitch?), makes the film work in small pieces. But as a whole, with cloying music and many scenes that smack of melodrama, Kaufman has lost what he so perfected in his previous scripts. There is no sympathy to be had for Caden, who bemoans his loneliness and creates his own world-within-a-world merely to examine himself and come up with no conclusions.

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