Charlie Kaufman is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual filmmakers to have burst onto the scene in the past decade. Working in tandem with director Spike Jonze, Mr. Kaufman is responsible for penning “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” two of the most surreal features in recent memory.
He also teamed up with Michel Gondry for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a mind-bending meditation on the value of memories.
A current of sadness and personal discontent runs through these films, and one gets the sense that autobiographical elements are contained within. This is especially true in “Adaptation,” a film in which Mr. Kaufman and his imaginary identical twin are portrayed onscreen by Nicolas Cage.
The heart of “Adaptation” is not the book from which it is adapted - Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief”- but Mr. Kaufman’s struggle to turn her sprawling New Yorker prose into a workable narrative. “Adaptation” is not a movie about flowers; it’s a movie about Mr. Kaufman’s sexual hang-ups, professional insecurities and personal jealousies. Similar themes pop up in “Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine.”
Mr. Kaufman’s previous scripts worked because they were brought to life by directors who indulged his peculiarities without losing control of the narrative. Mr. Jonze and Mr. Gondry - as odd as this may sound to anyone familiar with their quirky body of work - were calming influences.
“Synecdoche, New York,” Mr. Kaufman’s directorial debut, misses that steadying hand.
Impressionistic, inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, “Synecdoche” is replete with art-house pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar. Ever witnessed a freshman struggle with the writings of Nietzsche and the implications of nihilism on his own self-awareness? Ever wanted to see that struggle blown up on the silver screen for two interminable hours?
Didn’t think so.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a playwright stuck in an unhappy marriage to a cutting-edge artist (Catherine Keener as Adele) who paints images so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye. Not helping things are Adele’s denunciations of Caden’s work: Does entertaining suburbanites with yet another adaptation of “Death of a Salesman” really constitute art, she condescendingly asks?
Further complicating Caden’s life is that he lives on the verge of death, at least in his own mind. Every mild malady becomes a sure sign of extinction.
One would think that winning a MacArthur “genius” grant might ease Caden’s life. One would be wrong. After obtaining the grant, Caden sets out to create the masterwork he has long imagined he’s capable of. He sets up shop in a massive warehouse, where planning for the play spirals out of control as Caden adds layer upon layer upon layer.
Soon he has created his own little world, blocks and blocks full of people from his own life living out their existences exactly as he tells them to - and he tells them to do only what their real-life counterparts do. He’s like God, if God lacked imagination.
The plot is secondary to the random ruminations, however. What is the meaning of life? More important: What is the meaning of death? What do we owe our loved ones, and what do they owe us? Is all the world a stage?
Charlie Kaufman doesn’t know. And after two hours inside his head, you won’t either.
TITLE: “Synecdoche, New York”
RATING: R (Language and some sexual content/nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/synecdocheny
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS