In upstate New York you will find a medium-sized down called Schenectady (pronounced Shuh-neck-tah-dee). The title of this film is pronounced Sin-eck-tah-dee, and its IMDB page says synecdoche means using part of something to refer to the whole – as in saying ‘the boards’ to mean a stage. The hero of this film, theatre director Caden Coutard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), begins the movie with his family in Schenectady, and spends the rest of the movie trying to reconstruct that part of his life. Charlie Kaufman is famous for his wizard ideas and taking the movies he’s written – including Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation – to places beyond your wildest expectations. Sadly, Synecdoche, New York, is only a simulacrum of what he’s done before.
But what a cast he has assembled around Philip Seymour Hoffman! Catherine Keener is his dissatisfied artist wife, Adele; Jennifer Jason Leigh her best friend. Samantha Morton is Hazel, the box-office assistant who worships him and Michelle Williams plays Claire, the admiring actress who marries him after Adele leaves. Dianne Wiest joins his major production in its later stages, and telling you how Emily Watson is introduced would spoil the surprise. But apart from the joy of seeing these six women (with 9 Oscar nominations between them) together in one film – and let’s face it, what a huge amount of joy that is – in his directorial debut Kaufman doesn’t really give them all their due.
This is a weird film, with ideas piled on top of ideas, until they all fall down in a heap. Caden directs regional theatre with some panache and success – at which Adele sneers – until a ‘genius grant’ enables him to purchase a disused aircraft hangar in Manhattan to put on a show of enormous scope and size. He brings together a tremendous crew of actors and technicians, and strolls around, reminding the crew that they are not spectators, but part of the scene. Hazel, who has become his assistant, takes copious notes and keeps the production running smoothly, except for the meeting where one actor plaintively asks when they will be ready for an audience: "It’s been seventeen years."
The film very carefully sets up several interesting ideas, but then drops them as too many conflicting ideas become impossible to juggle. Adele’s art is paintings so miniature that gallery visitors must wear special magnifying glasses to see them; an amusing idea, but the art itself adds little to the story. Caden’s health is carefully destroyed early in the film, as several undiagnosed ailments and accidents do gross things to his legs, face and bowels, but these problems do not recur after the early part of the film, a mercy for anyone who can do without seeing people picking through their own stool. Hazel decides to purchase a house that is literally on fire, albeit slow-burning, which the real estate agent selling it describes as the home’s most unique feature. Claire and Caden have a daughter who barely figures, whereas Olive, Caden’s daughter with Adele, is one of his life’s main obsessions. And then there is Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been observing Caden’s life for the last twenty years, and who observes that the show on which Caden has been working so diligently needs a Caden of its own to be truly accurate. And I won’t even get started on the heavy-handed war metaphors.
I felt very much as if this play was Kaufman’s attempts to understand the arena in which he has chosen to work, the world of make-believe and its natural limits. As with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, there is more than a little whiff of a cherished schoolboy idea finally out of the toybox. And as with The Fifth Element, it would have been so nice for the director to taken some third-party advice. Someone to ask why Catherine Keener is reprising her character from Being John Malkovich, for example. Or query why Morton and Williams’ characters only revolve around Caden without either of them having a well-rounded personality of their own. Finally, I do wish someone had reminded Kaufman that art is allowed to end with a bang, not just a whimper.
Mark Friedberg’s production design does a marvellous job not only of construction the reconstructed sets and theatre spaces in which Caden works, but also of reminding us that the world of this film is not quite the same as our own. Frederick Elmes’ cinematography shows the mystery and wonder in Caden’s life in bright, almost Technicolor light. But what starts out as the story of a man facing up to his death gets so sidelined by its own cleverness that it forgets to make any meaningful point. Hoffman, who has yet to give a bad or dull performance, maintains our interest despite the ever-increasingly ludicrous situations around him. But, as in his plays, none of the immense talent around him is allowed the depth needed to give their best performance. Even someone as talented as Kaufman can lay the occasional egg, but I very much hope his next movie he directs delivers the same amount of genius so apparent in his scripts.
Synecdoche, New York was shown at the London Film Festival.