Unsuccessfully attempting to take a page out of the Fellini handbook, cult screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has with his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, ratcheted up the art of opaque self-indulgence in ways that would make Matthew Barney blush. The film, which concerns the personal, mental, and artistic deterioration of playwright-director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) begins with promising Kaufmanesque flourishes: Time skips past Cotard at an accelerated rate; his wife, Adele (the ever-icy Catherine Keener), seems to have lost interest in him while focusing on her peculiar art; he is plagued by an unspecific disease; and his young daughter poops green.
There is no sensible way to encapsulate the story of Synecdoche, a narrative mishmash that has all the cohesion of a drunken homeless man recalling an uninteresting dream in which he was a genius. Cotard's life, as weird as it is, flies past him with ever-increasing speed, and as the audience we are forced to go along with Kaufman and Cotard on this self-reflexive and ever-more-masturbatory ride from episode to episode with seemingly nothing to glue the narrative together. Cotard stages a production of Death of a Salesman that is an artistic failure, so he applies for and receives a grant to create his masterwork. His wife leaves him with his young daughter. He falls in and out of love with Hazel (a doe-eyed Samantha Morton), who carries a torch for him from the beginning. He falls in and out of love with one of his actors. He pines for his first wife as his daughter gets older and becomes an exotic stripper. As these episodes go down, he incorporates them into his magnum opus. Time flies, stuff happens, but nothing ever jells around a central idea long enough to become the thing that the movie is supposed to be about.
Along for the ride are a stellar cast of talented actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest, and Emily Watson — all of whom don increasingly thicker old-age prosthetics as the movie flies off the rails and through the years. Though many of their performances, especially Morton's, carry a certain degree of warmth or connection, they — like us — are lost in the amorphous sea of wannabe surrealism that Kaufman has created, clinging for dear life to any shred of a story that might be floating by.
It's impossible not to see Kaufman's often self-mocking style (see also: Adaptation.) hiding under the film's thick skin — or Kaufman himself, or perhaps what he fears about himself, under the Kabuki mask of Cotard; but whereas in his earlier scripts he was able to take the outer limits of dream logic and make them feel real and personal, with Synecdoche Kaufman concocts an unrelatable metaphor for the artistic and/or human condition and smashes it to pieces in hopes that it will break in an interesting way.
Written and directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Dianne Wiest