I’m worried about Charlie Kaufman. His films show such an unwillingness to adhere to the crushing universal guidelines that we all live under, basics like the laws of physics and the tedious linear rigidity of time, that I wonder that he might decide that everyday existence is too bland and start eating power cables or trying to find portals to the future in a Staffordshire bull terrier’s arse.
As arguably the most forcefully imaginative mind working in modern cinema, Kaufman’s scripts for films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have all refused to fall in with the accepted perception of reality, instead tinkering with the language and structure of film to create a universe that’s at the same time recognisable and wildly transformed.
Equally liberal in its relationship with everyday logic, Synecdoche is a vast, sprawling epic of personal crises. Given a prestigious cultural grant, New York theatre director Caden Cotard (a typically weighty turn from Phillip Seymour Hoffman) attempts to create a significant, meaningful and truthful play, and takes up residence in a massive warehouse space so as to develop his masterpiece.
Deserted by his wife Adele, a celebrated painter, and his daughter Olive, Caden struggles to fill the void with the play and with his relationships with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) and leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams). As the play and cast expand, it fills the warehouse, becoming a world within a world, then a world within a world within a world.
In pursuit of the unforgiving truth, Caden casts actors as himself and those around him, re-enacting events. Divorced from the crumbling world outside, the play becomes its own reality, and the barrier between the characters and their actors vanishes as art begins to dictate reality. With Caden’s body in a continual state of decline, he slowly and painfully tries in vain to come to terms with his life and art, and attempts to resolve the differences with his family that fuel his turmoil.
Synecdoche, New York often feels like a slog – it’s dense, morose and wilfully obtuse, but it’s also stunning, breathtaking, passionate, innovative and genuinely moving. While Kaufman’s work with Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry had seen them marked out as a new school of visionaries, Synecdoche emphatically proves that it is Kaufman who is the true genius among them. Until now his scripts were interpreted by those directors, but this time Kaufman sees the job through, taking on the director’s role for the first time.
While both Jonze and Gondry have had much less of an impact without a Kaufman script behind them, Charlie more than holds his own when flying solo. One of the problems of the likes of Being John Malkovich was the overt eccentricity, an attention-seeking quality that amused and irked in equal amounts, but Kaufman has risen above that.
Synedoche is no less odd, but it’s tied to such a powerful human touch that it over-rides any potentially grating archness. Kaufman drenches every scene with such personal detail that it makes the unbelievable utterly resonant. So much care and attention has gone into Caden’s world, from the set to the seemingly throwaway clues in the script, that it doesn’t feel like it’s 2 hours long - instead it feels 2 hours long, but a lifetime wide.
There was a massive wave of negative feedback for Synecdoche on its initial cinema release, openly acknowledged in the extras, and it’s easy to see why it may not be for everyone. But for all its reluctance to spoonfeed cheap thrills, this film is a marvel – rejecting comfortable predictability for a heartfelt philosophical piece that’s astounding in both its vision and execution.
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Katherine Keener, Samantha Morton
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Extras: Interview, Charlie Kaufman Q&A, featurettes, Kaufman animations