With Synecdoche, New York, the writer of the trippy Being John Malkovich takes us not inside the body of the eccentric actor but inside his own head for a couple of hours. But even fans of the cerebral Charlie Kaufman might find this falls under the general heading “Too Much Information.”
Kaufman's messy, indulgent writing-directing debut began with a bad-pun title (Synecdoche, sounds like “Schenectady”), plays around with language until you roll your eyes and then settles into an existential ramble through the life of a Schenectady theater director who spends decades casting, directing and rehearsing the vast “play” that is his life, a life full of drama, tragedy, “stars” and dozens of extras.
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Synecdoche, a figure of speech in which “a part is used for the whole,” is the magic pun here. The director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), given an unlimited budget and no set time to ever bring the curtain up on this show, tips us to what the real ambition of the writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might be. Life is too big to ever be summarized by just a play or movie. We're all lead actors in the play that is our lives. The real synecdoche here is Synecdoche, Charlie Kaufman.
Caden is 40 and his body is falling apart, a medical dictionary of pustules, spasms, seizures and errant stool samples. His marriage to a painter (Catherine Keener) who creates exquisite miniatures (Symbolism 101?) is failing. She's self-absorbed. And their prattling, precocious 4-year-old might be writing a diary for the ages, which could be ready to publish if she ever outgrows her defecation obsession.
With every specialist Caden sees, every misguided trip to the flirty, self-help author/marriage counselor (Hope Davis), Caden is confronted with confusion, inexact language. An “overture” can be a summary musical flourish at the beginning of a play, or asking that sexy box office clerk (Samantha Morton) out on a date.
“That's not right.”
“What do you mean? ‘Right' as in ‘correct' or ‘right' as in ‘just?'”
Caden's life-down-the-toilet is spared, mid-flush, by a MacArthur “genius” grant, which allows him to rent a vast New York City warehouse, fill it with sets and cast legions of folks in a play that suggests life isn't about the destination, but the journey.
Years and years of casting, rehearsals, death and life pass. Lovers come and go, and anybody who mixes up the winsome, apple-cheeked Brits Samantha Morton and Emily Watson will be more confused than is really necessary here.
As navel gazing goes, this musing over how disappointing life is and the oblivion that we are all “hurtling toward” is a downer in the extreme. Characters age and die, and Caden keeps hitting us with “I think I know how to do the play, now” when in reality, he doesn't.
Synecdoche, New York is high-minded, with ambition to burn. But it helps to recall that this is the screenwriter who, on failing to turn The Orchid Thief into a coherent script, wrote a script (Adaptation) about a writer unable to write a coherent script. The flailing about might be lyrical to beat the band. It's still flailing.