As Synecdoche, New York unspools, one may be forgiven if the routinely melancholic subject of mortality seems to be treated as a kind of relentlessly rancorous punchline. Charlie Kaufman's directorial maiden voyage is discontented, and just a little angry. Which provides the abutment for Kaufman's grandly affixed creation. Without the frustration that comes from knowledge of the mortality of oneself, such astutely penetrative works as the fifteenth century's Latin texts, Ars moriendi, written with the solemn purpose of endowing the reader with the properly Christian, and artful, way in which to die, would not have had their very first reason to be created. This connubial triumvirate of philosophy, religion and art in the bleary matters of death has haunted man, and continues to do so, in the popular art form of cinema.
In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatrical director in Schenectady, New York, suffering from a case of hypochondria that makes Woody Allen's Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) look positively blasé when regarding his health. Caden's suspicions seem to be proven, with dizzying rapidity, as Kaufman whirls the ailments with which Caden may or may not be afflicted—with the alacritous hurry of children-riding horses on a merry-go-round. His head being slashed while shaving leading him to believe he has brain damage; his urine curdling into a rusty brown; his fecal matter becoming differently colored (foreshadowed by his daughter’s fixation on her greening “poop”), finally graying as surely as his hair does in this twenty-year-long odyssey; the postules that riddle his skin; a gum disease, necessitating surgery; seizures. Kaufman's specific obsession with the waste product of his characters speaks to an anatomical cogitation, and supplies a rationale for critics looking through the lens of literalism to deride the unpleasant imagery and exposition while forming the fairly tired theory that the auteur has his head up his rectum. On one doubtless plane this does partly serve as a creative innuendo. If Caden is Kaufman, as Marcello Mastroianni's Guido Anselmi was Federico Fellini in 8½, thus Caden's fascination with the matter he, his daughter and all people evacuate is a “brutally truthful” (an achingly lofty goal towards which Caden strives to reach in his art) reflection on the writer-director himself, a bit of self-deprecating humor about more than defecating. However, Kaufman's fervent interest in the body in all of its functions serves greater, much more involving interests. This thematic curiosity was previously covered with repetitiousness in his previous screenwriting enterprises most minutely in the context of the ritualistic auto-orgasmic act of masturbation. Here, however, Kaufman strips away his protagonist's desire to self-pleasure; indeed, when confronted with the potentiality of having sex with a woman, Caden begins crying, much to his embarrassment.
If Kaufman's Caden is unwilling to self-pleasure and humorously unexcited about—or perhaps simply incapable of emotionally handling—the prospects of lovemaking, it is with an ironic twist that Kaufman makes his ostensible alter-ego (emphasis on ego) a veritable eye of a tornado comprised primarily of femininity. Like a passive, uncharismatic and oversensitive variation on Mastroianni's Guido, and lacking a whip with which to keep his vying females at bay, Hoffman's Caden mopes and talks. In a kaleidoscopic first act in which time moves at great velocity (newspaper dates change by several months at the rate of a minute)—the fabric of which is never tamed and is astonishingly fluid throughout the film—Caden's relationship with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) completely disintegrates. Caden—whose last name, Cotard, hints at his ailment's identity—suffers one verbal indignity after another from Adele. As he is directing Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman,” and has given the modern classic a face-lift by casting younger performers (one of whom is played by Michelle Williams) in all of the roles, informing the actor playing Willy Loman for what feels like must be the hundredth time that the great tragedy of the play will be ballooned by the audience's collective realization that they will end up just as devastated and beaten-down as poor Willy Loman. Again, the film functions as at least doubly attuned, heightening the film audience's awareness that Caden resembles Willy Loman.
After Adele sees the production for herself, she lacerates her husband for wasting his time tinkering with someone else's play. Soon she takes their daughter away to Germany where she becomes quite famous. (A phone call between Keener and Hoffman recalls Capote, in which Keener, vastly more respectful and tender as Nelle Harper Lee, gently basked in her acclaim with To Kill a Mockingbird to a disgusted and psychologically bruised Hoffman-Truman Capote.)
The numerical configuration of 7-45, as in 7:45, is fascinating, for it gives the film a greater oneiric foundation. Awakening at the time his digital clock reads 7:45, Caden's lackadaisical efforts to vacate his bed, listening to the local radio station, whereat a woman speaks of the depressing realization that is the first day of autumn (“The bloom is off the rose,” she says at one point; later, she notes that “everything is dying...”) are a foreshadowing of the film's most fundamental portrait: a man slowly struggling against the oncoming chilliness of mortality. The beautiful number seven, God's chosen number of completion—and in the interests of further thematic uncovering, perhaps denoting the dice-flinging possibility of “sevening out,” which results in the player losing the dice. Four, idiomatically conjuring the imagery of the four extremities, resting on all fours, bodily communicating the extents to which beings can concretely reach. Five, the digital representation of the hand's extremities, theoretically reinforcing the primacy of man's distinguishing feature of the closing of the thumb and index finger—also very probably tied in with the concept of “taking five,” of a respite, in this instance pointing to an earthly rest.
The liveliest character in Caden's orbit is the spirited, lovely redhead Hazel, who works at his theatre's box office, played to infectious dazzle by Samantha Morton. Flirtatiously sweet, if admittedly highly, almost unhealthily determined, she is compulsively drawn to Caden's vulnerability, which most fittingly keeps her at a remote distance. Gradually, however, she wears Caden's veneer of insecurities and anxieties down, pointing to his wife's year-long absence (which he believes has only spanned the time of a week), and takes him to her home, where a perpetual fire consumes portions of the abode. This venue of confused lovemaking, the air overwhelmed by the smoke and flame through which Caden and Hazel eye one another, with her offering a drink.
Kaufman's richly detailed, almost epically vast narrative, marked by a suffusive coating of phantasmagorical surrealism, chronicles not the celebration of death but the reckoning with it. The film does not in actuality represent the petulant wallowing in nihilism that some critics undoubtedly dismiss Synecdoche, New York as but the confrontation with existential worriment. Kaufman's films cannot and should not be called nihilistic: if anything, it is an exemplary branching off from nihilism, and most historically judicious in being such. The film is surrealistic, the philosophical and artistic outgrowth from nihilism in the post-World War I period, and stands in contrast to nihilism as a film made with the entirely reasonable, even morally sound, yearning to confront the greatest vicissitude that lay in the shadow land between life and death. Kaufman's pictures may not meet the definition of “funny” for everyone (Synecdoche, New York is rather hilarious, however, despite the grimness and wistfulness at the picture's troubled but thoroughly humanistic core) but their interests, marinated though they may be in Dostoyevskian, Joycian and Kafkaesque theorem, are not absurdly esoteric or incomprehensible.
Those interests are in actuality not especially eggheaded, but truly bourgeois, at least in their emotional resonance. If anything, with each successive screenplay, Kaufman has become more one with his audience than with his peers. That process seemed to culminate in 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which took as its great, urgent theme the inviolable importance of memories—good, bad, indifferent—as the basis upon which people of all stripes find their own soulful worth. Those memories, in that case distinctly constituting the highs, lows and in-betweens that lovers share, and here, the sprawling ennui, sweeping intimacy of one man's life as artist, husband, father, friend and lover, give people an ideal to which they strive. Kaufman seems to be writing a valentine of sorts, not to anyone in particular, perhaps, but to the very notion of the good life, which is naturally imperfect (and thusly “good”). In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's characters discovered that annoyances, disagreements and disappointments aside, they were ultimately right for one another. Keener's Adele remarks with cutting clarity—and, again, brutal honesty—“Everyone's disappointing, the more you know them,” a biting piece of individualized nihilism, yes, but exposed as fatally trendy and hollow. This is not unlike the family counselor played by Hope Davis, interested only in peddling her uber-trendy self-help books, whose lack of assistance in anything meaningful indicts the labeled highbrow establishment not unlike Woody Allen's thrashing of the intelligentsia.
Comparing Kaufman to Ingmar Bergman may verge on heresy, though some of the concerns are similar. Here Kaufman reminds of Bergman's films about artists, in one form and context or another, such as The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna and even Autumn Sonata, motivated as they are by the quandaries with which the famed Swedish master struggled. When Caden finds himself apparently swapping roles with a woman named Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest), the disorienting effect is considerably less subtle than that which constituted the psychological exploration and projection in Persona but not entirely unlike it.
It is noteworthy that cinematographer Frederick Elmes, longtime cinematographer of David Lynch's, lensed this film, lending it an aesthetically adventurous manner. Yet the cinematography, mixing the reality with the fantastical, is most effective because it is almost pensively restrained in its gritty, grounded schema. The original music by Jon Brion brightens some of the film's darkness, aiding Kaufman in making many a ludicrous event downright hysterical. Kaufman's picture succeeds most emphatically because of its singular ability to leave profoundly saddening revelations about humanity dropping into the minds of the viewers while practically giggling, chuckling and chortling through the celluloid itself. Meanwhile, Hoffman and Morton give two of the year's best performances in one of the year's very best films.
What Synecdoche, New York most puissantly reveals is the importance of finding peace within one's very soul, within oneself. Kaufman dials down the artistic expression at its most basic mixture of ingredients. Visually, this is demonstrated through absurd and humorous tiny miniature works of art framed at an art gallery that must be viewed through microscopic goggles. After Caden has assiduously built up the warehouse (it looks like an enormous airplane hanger in “reality,” however ill-defined that may be, however) he eyes a map. The map features the Warehouse, and underneath this symbol a smaller map and warehouse exists, and underneath that, yet another, each one becoming tinier than the one before it. Caden cannot stop thumbing through them for a moment, at the sheer, almost juvenile delight that matryoshka dolls likewise inspire. The entire film's essence is boiled down. It is in this never-ending vortex, this gravitational pull of wonder, that people learn about themselves. Or so Caden desperately hopes.