"Synecdoche, New York," the directorial debut from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") has officially became the most divisive movie to come out this year. There are those who love it and those who loathe it. Surprisingly, many in both camps agree on one thing: they can't make heads or tails of it.
From what I gathered after seeing it, the movie is about Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a regional theater director who stages productions of works such as "Death of a Salesman" while living a humdrum existence in Schenectady, suffering through everything from blood in his urine to pustules.
Cotard gets a MacArthur grant, which gives him the opportunity to stage his masterpiece, which he does in a gigantic warehouse in Manhattan. He stages the story of his life, hiring people to play him and the people around him, who then hire people to play him and the people around him. As all this happens, time passes. Days and months change, often in the span of one scene. By the time he starts limping around with a cane, he's still stuck trying to find a title for the dang thing.
Like most Kaufman protagonists, Cotard is a quietly self-loathing, continually inspired mess. (Kaufman certainly struck gold by casting Hoffman, who has made it his life's work to play schlubby, intensely introspective everymen.) His quest to suffer for his art also causes his relationships to suffer. His artist wife (Catherine Keener) slowly builds such contempt for him that she skips off to Berlin, taking their daughter with her. His second marriage, to an actress (Michelle Williams) who idolizes him, slowly dissolves the same way. He spends most of his existence longing after his theater's ticket-taker (Samantha Morton), whose earlier attempt to start a relationship with him was unconsciously sabotaged by Cotard.
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Kaufman surrounds Hoffman with other talented character actresses. There's Hope Davis as Cotard's flirtatious, book-hawking therapist. There's Dianne Wiest as an actress who ends up understanding Cotard the most. There's Jennifer Jason Leigh as a woman who changes accents halfway through the movie. There's Emily Watson as an actress playing a version of Samantha Morton's character.
"Synecdoche" blurs fantasy and reality with unapologetic fervor, reminiscent of David Lynch at his most intentionally incomprehensible. It would be easier to say "Synecdoche" is inside Cotard's head, a dream exposing the neurotic fears, desires and hopes of Kaufman and his stand-in. But Kaufman doesn't let us off that easy.
The truth is that "Synecdoche" is many things: epic meditation on death, morbid allegory on man's constant desire to matter in life, Fellini-esque satire on an artist's compulsive desire to create that perfect work of art. It's everything and nothing, all at the same time.
"Synecdoche" is a movie that I'm sure people will enjoy dissecting afterward, but it's unlikely they'll have fun watching it. Kaufman's desire to throw everything out there to challenge the viewer on what it all means would be admirable if most of it didn't seem like unfinished thoughts that were either too bleak or banal to see all the way through. (The movie feels like ideas Kaufman scribbled in a notebook somewhere.)
Much like the play his leading man spends a lifetime creating, "Synecdoche, New York" is Kaufman's magnum opus, a surreal, somewhat autobiographical tale that tells everything he loves and hates about the creative process -- his "8," if you will.
Unfortunately, this is not his "8." It's more like his "Vanilla Sky."