Being that writer Charlie Kaufman was responsible for the scripts for movies like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” it stands to reason that his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” would be a little on the wacky side. And it is, blending magic realism, absurdity and his usual obsessions with doubles and miniatures. It is a sprawling, ambitious and very long look at so many things, it’s almost a miracle he was able to wrap it up in just two hours. And yet, for a film that is principally about death, the conclusion is surprisingly life-affirming, especially coming from Kaufman.
The film centers on Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director stuck in a failing marriage to a gifted, but unsatisfied painter of miniatures (Catherine Keener). Obsessed with his shortcomings, both artistic and personal, he is also obsessed with the idea that he is on the verge of dying and his litany of medical issues, from things as mundane as a bump on the head to the unexplainable shaking of one leg, could be justification for his fears or a result thereof. Eventually his wife abandons him and relocates to Germany with their daughter Olive, leaving him free to pursue the repeated advances of comely box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton), but he is ill-prepared and the romance fizzles before it begins.
Things start to look up for Caden when he receives a MacArthur genius grant, meaning that he can finally embark on the type of “serious” theatre project to which he was always aspired, or at least thought that he should. The film then chronicles the next twenty years of his life as he tries to build his project, a look at life, love, death etc., that grows to include an ever growing replica of New York City inside an ever expanding warehouse. The result is an unwieldy tangle, much like the film that it is the center piece of.
Although the film does seem to be reaching for greatness with its lofty themes, it is also keenly aware of what a ridiculous undertaking it is, and it is this self-awareness (perhaps the hallmark of a Kaufman film) and an endless parade of intimate and sensitive performances, that save “Synecdoche, New York” from being the complete train wreck that it should have been. Stand-outs are obviously Hoffman, who takes what could be yet another self-absorbed middle aged artist and crafts a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a man desperately striving to find meaning in his life; Morton as Hazel, the woman who starts as a lost fan-girl and eventually becomes his steadfast companion, and a tragically underused Michelle Williams as the footnote second wife/actress.
However, the ceaseless absurdist flourishes, such as Hazel’s perpetually ablaze house or the grown Olive’s diseased flower tattoos that wither and fall on her hospital bed as she lays ill, end up being a double-edged sword. On the one hand the inclusion of such bizarre imagery is distracting to the excellently portrayed human drama, but on the other hand it is ultimately what makes this a Charlie Kaufman film and it is self aware enough to know that these touches also serve to underscore the larger theme of the film, which is that life is absurd. And yet, although a beautifully acted and often very well written film, one leaves “Synecdoche, New York” feeling like they could have gotten the same feeling just by living life. But then again, that was likely the point.