Life sucks and then you die. There you have it: Charlie Kaufman’s 124-minute Synecdoche, New York boils down to a cliché. Kaufman’s directorial debut, about a man’s obsession with his unhappiness and demise, is unrelentingly maudlin, as absurdist as his previous scripts for Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without the humor of the former or the lovely melancholy of the latter. That’s not to say that the film, which Kaufman also wrote, isn’t interesting, or haunting, or even occasionally graceful. It’s just one tough sit—and not necessarily a recommendable one.
Perhaps Synecdoche, New York would be more easily redeemable if Kaufman didn’t bludgeon you with its bleakness. Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking more than ever like someone who’d ask you to spare a dime, stars as Caden Cotard, a depressed regional theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., who prefers to restage plays like Death of a Salesman than create his own work. His wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), is an artist who regards him as a “fucking tool” and changes their plan for a family trip corresponding with her show in Berlin to a permanent separation, taking their 4-year-old daughter with her. Caden’s health is randomly but steadily failing (his last name is a not-so-subtle nod to a neuropsychiatric disorder called Cotard’s syndrome) with weird symptoms such as an inability to salivate or a sudden, involuntary leg tremor. He’s got a sexy woman, Hazel (Samantha Morton), practically dragging him to bed, but when he finally gives in—after accepting that, unlike his perception, Adele has been gone for a year, not a week—all he can do is cry.
You’d expect things to brighten for Caden when he gets a MacArthur grant and moves to New York City to stage his grand vision for a play about the mundane and ultimately tragic reality of the human condition. “I want to do something important while I’m still here,” he tells his therapist (Hope Davis), convinced he is near death. The Grim Reaper is actually as significant a character in the movie as any other; several people bite the dust, while the dialogue includes lines such as “I’ve been thinking a lot about dying lately” and “Death comes sooner than you think.” When one person close to Caden passes away, he relates these details from the phone call: “They said he suffered horribly. He said he regretted his life.…They said it was the longest and saddest deathbed speech they ever heard.” Jon Brion’s mournful score underlines the misery throughout.
Kaufman’s central message is that most people flounder through life, making the wrong decisions or no decisions at all, and achieve clarity only when it’s too late. The film stretches over many years, with Caden constantly reworking his play until it becomes an epic mess; meanwhile, his hair grays and he blows every opportunity for happiness, watching with bewilderment as those close to him move on with their lives after setbacks. Time is fluid here, though, often taking major leaps forward, and Kaufman’s fondness for mind-bending, nonlinear storytelling is what keeps you engaged in the movie well past the point when you start thinking you should just slit your wrists already. Its harsh realities are lightly countered with touches of whimsy: Hazel lives in a house that’s continuously on fire, bought from “motivated sellers.” Caden sees animated versions of himself in cartoons and commercials.
Most satisfying—if, admittedly, usually WTF confusing—is the absurdism that takes over once Caden’s intended masterpiece starts imitating his own life and spiraling out of control. Its cast and set grows and grows, with actors volunteering to play Caden and Hazel with such Method madness that somebody could start a conversation with one and finish it with the other as if each pair were one. You suspect that some scenes are dream sequences—until you remember that this is a Kaufman work. And the cast, especially Hoffman, Morton, and Michelle Williams (who plays a member of Caden’s ensemble and his eventual lover), deftly sells it, performing as naturally as if this were just another cookie-cutter weepie. It’s clear that a lot of thought and effort went into the loops and philosophies of Synecdoche, New York, with Kaufman’s style even spelled out when Caden remarks to Adele that he doesn’t know why he makes his productions so complicated. “Because that’s what you do,” she replies. But the director’s other works at least weaved a thread of hope within all their bends; here, the lack of it is glaring and sinks the viewer’s spirit along with the film itself.