I don't know what producer or financier was insane enough to give writer/director Charlie Kaufman enough money to make the epic death rattle/meta-theatrical mindfuck Synecdoche, New York, but God bless him or her for doing it. His screenplays for other directors have always been a bit of a hard sell, commercially speaking, but with this (his directorial debut), Kaufman has helmed a work that makes his Being John Malcovich seem positively multiplex-friendly and accessible in comparison.
Which is not to say that it's all a stunt or a gimmick, either. Kaufman (and his excellent cast) gamble big, but they often win big as well. Not every detour pays off, but the journey sure is interesting.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a husband and father who directs over-complicated stagings of familiar plays for a local theatre in Schenectady, New York. He's not terribly happy, and neither is his wife, and when he's injured in a shaving accident, it sets off a chain reaction of maladies and depression that leaves Cotard alone, sure that he's dying, and aching to do something important--a massive theatre piece that addresses (ultimately) the entirety of the human condition.
That's an ambitious enough set-up, so I'll leave it to the viewer to discover the side streets and back alleys that Kaufman dips into along the way. Some of its beats are tragic, some warm, and some imbued with a goofy, semi-absurdist streak reminiscent of the early prose of Woody Allen. Some are just plain strange, as if Kaufman were afraid that this would be the only chance a weirdo like him would have to make a film, so he'd better empty out his director's notebook into this one (I'm thinking particularly of the perpetually burning house). It could have been a more disciplined and focused film, sure, but its messiness and ambition is part of its charm, and perhaps part of its (dare I say) brilliance.
Performances are uniformly terrific, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one his finest turns to date (and that's saying something); he ages, he weeps, he rants, he hurts, and you cannot take your eyes off of him, even when his character is occasionally insufferable. He's in (to the best of my memory) every single scene, and Kaufman had the good sense to surround him with a roll call of the best female actors in the business: Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all masterful in their sometimes brief but always fascinating roles. Morton is particularly good, cheerful yet fragile, as is Emily Watson as her doppelganger (finally lying to rest my guilt for having so much trouble telling them apart over the past decade or so).
Kaufman's screenplay is a marvel of delicately eccentric emotion, wistful without being saccharine, melancholy without being tragic, clever without being smarmy. He seems to take particular pleasure in monkeying with our notion of time--more than once his characters blurt out that it's been a year, or 20 years, and it scores a laugh that sticks in the throat, because sometimes it really does go by just like that, in a flash.
The meta-storytelling turn of its third act provides both big laughs and genuine insight, peeling away the onion of its story to bewildering levels, stopping just short of the ultimate reveal, which is between the lines. And that is that Kaufman has done what his protagonist attempted, to create an epic work that, in its own strange way, is about the ultimate big topics, Life and Death, with all of the blood and guts and tears and beauty and scars and feces and sex and warmth and strangeness and sadness, all of it, every moment for every person. It's an odd film, but an unquestionably bold and moving one all the same, and the fact that you can go out to a theatre, buy a ticket, and see it is a bit of a miracle in and of itself. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.