Syndromes of a Century
By Elbert Ventura
Synecdoche, New York
Dir. Charlie Kaufman, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Synecdoche, New York opens with a scene of finely observed domestic squalor. A suburban home rouses itself for the day. A middle-aged man declares “I don’t feel well” before sitting down to breakfast. His wife futzes around the house, the mask of a day’s worth of worries already pasted on her face. Their little daughter finishes on the potty and asks “Is there something wrong with my poop?” as mom wipes her clean. The mundaneness is laced with disquiet, even menace. The accretion of the banal—ticking clocks, milk expiration dates, a persistent cough, bird flu in the newspaper—amounts to something of a premonition. As he brushes his teeth, the man hears the pipes convulse—and gets nailed in the head by shrapnel as the sink bursts into pieces. The morning ends as it should: in blood, amid screams.
Lest that eruption mislead you, Synecdoche, New York is not actually violent. Intimations of mortality abound, but the film is too paralyzed with depression to ever swerve into sadism. It may open with blood, but the movie ends with a serene command—a whispered “Die”—and a fade to white. In between those bookends is a wallow in morbidity that is by turns affecting and exasperating, but never pedestrian.
The directing debut of Charlie Kaufman, our most celebrated screenwriter since Quentin Tarantino, is a reliably Kaufman-esque experience: incurably neurotic, relentlessly clever, extravagantly weird. But it is also his most morose, most obsessive, and, with the exception of 2001’s Human Nature, least fun work. A diffident invitation to crawl into its maker’s addled psyche, Synecdoche, New York is a downer that resonates as much as it repels.
One certainly can’t call it impersonal—or modest. A movie whose staggering scale only gradually reveals itself, Synecdoche, New York is the largest canvas yet for Kaufman’s magic miserablism. For this schlubby 8 ½, Kaufman casts Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director in Schenectady, New York—the setting and title are the first of the movie’s askew rhymes—in the middle of a well-reviewed run of Death of a Salesman. Like Fellini’s Guido, this director deals with his own unruly (if less glamorous) harem. The perennially anxious Caden drives away his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), who takes their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), and best friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with her to Berlin. Meanwhile, he fends off the advances of Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office receptionist at his theater, is tempted by his hottie shrink (Hope Davis), and ends up moving in with his lead actress (Michelle Williams).
But Synecdoche, New York is primarily about Caden’s magnum opus. After Adele and Olive leave, Caden wins a genius grant, a windfall that allows him to mount his most ambitious production ever—a reconstruction of his life, seemingly in its entirety, in a vast warehouse in New York. The rehearsal takes years, the plot mushrooms, characters spin off doppelgangers. As the production mutates, it overwhelms the source material. Scenes from the play and scenes from life become interchangeable. The movie goes down the rabbit hole and never resurfaces, a nervous, literate, mopey Inland Empire.
A glorious jumble of doubles, rhymes, and homonyms, Synecdoche, New York is a meditation on twin failures: that of the body and of the mind. The early reference to excrement is the first of the movie’s icky invocations. Caden’s life is awash in a current of viscera and bodily fluids. With plaintive vigilance, he presides over the breakdown of his body. Over the course of the film, he’ll see blood in his stool, have an epileptic fit, lose his salivary function, and contract a skin disease, among other afflictions. A dolorous variant of Cronenbergian body horror, Synecdoche, New York’s obsession with corporeal degradation resonates with its echoes of the everyday. The movie reminds us that the bruise from bumping the table, the coughing fit in the morning, the nagging pain in the back are all signposts on the way to the grave. Living is the same as aging, and aging, death.
How does one cope? Art is Caden’s answer. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was an elaboration of Woody Allen’s we-need-the-eggs moral, Synecdoche, New York expands on another scene from Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer reenacts his break-up with Annie in a play he’s staging—and gives himself a happier ending than real life granted. But there is no redemptive grace in Caden’s reconstructions. As if picking at old wounds, Caden relives his life’s worst moments with actors and wallows in them. His would-be masterpiece is the literalization of something we all do: replay vignettes from our personal narrative over and over in our heads. Synecdoche, New York relishes the promise of art to transmute life into something meaningful but also knows that promise’s fundamental fraudulence. In the end, we’re still stuck in the same rotting body, the same entropic world.
We know Kaufman can write; it turns out he can direct, too. More Spike Jonze than Michel Gondry, the now director handles the shifts in mood and atmospherics—from grubby naturalism to understated fantasia—with impressive facility. At times—as in a bit with a rose petal in a deathbed scene, or a passing shot of a dirigible at night—Kaufman even conjures up something approaching beauty. But if he doesn’t let his movie’s scale overwhelm the details, he can’t stop it from exhausting the narrative engine. The surprising fleetness of the movie’s first half, with its whiplash elisions and leaps, eventually gives way to gargantuan lethargy.
A whimper against creeping mortality, Synecdoche, New York can border on the insufferable. Caden flagellates himself with such single-mindedness that you can’t help but want to escape his whiny company. Endless though this hall of mirrors may seem at times, it is also frequently brilliant. Kaufman’s script is a wonder of lapidary craft (only the Coens write screenplays as precise and poetic). Synecdoches and stand-ins, echoes and doubles, projections of a mind desperate for renewal, are seen everywhere. Bird flu in turkey? No—Turkey. A skin disease called sycocis—not psychosis. At one point Caden comes up with a title for his play: “Simulacrum.”
Even his name means something. “Caden Cotard” seems innocent enough, unless you know that Cotard’s syndrome is a mental disorder: the delusion of believing that one is dead. Later, Caden rings the buzzer at an apartment building, and one of the names on the address list is “Capgras”—the syndrome in which a person believes that one’s loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Can the puzzles of Synecdoche, New York be explained away by psychiatry? More likely, neurological disorder is but one element of Kaufman’s encompassing view of the misery of life, of dying as our permanent state. “No one wants to hear about my misery because they have their own,” Caden whines at one point. Kaufman pushes our limits, but his inventions are dazzling enough that he gets us to stick around anyway.