The Current Cinema

Let’s Put on a Show!

“Synecdoche, New York” and “High School Musical 3.”

by Anthony Lane November 3, 2008

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Kaufman’s movie.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Kaufman’s movie.

The hero of “Synecdoche, New York” is a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He runs a successful troupe in Schenectady—so successful that he receives an award from the MacArthur Foundation, giving him carte blanche to unleash his genius at will. This is a rare palliative for Caden, the rest of whose existence is a rash of displeasure and doom. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), is a painter of canvases so minuscule that viewers must wear magnifying spectacles to see them. She is also a top-class moper, sprawling across the couch when they go to counselling. “Can I say something awful?” she asks the therapist, a blonde of terrifying perkiness named Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), and then reveals that she fantasizes about her husband’s death. “Do you feel terrible?” Madeleine asks Caden, as he digests this news. “Yup.” “O.K., good.”

Such is the way of this unusual film. It sets up, in the person of its central character, a monolithic desolation, and then spends two hours capering around it, so that we emerge, at the end, not quite sure whether to feel toyed with or ground down. No one could accuse the director, Charlie Kaufman, of lacking ambition. Few directors these days, especially in America, are willing to roll up their sleeves and grapple with existence, mortality, creativity, love, and the gulf where love was meant to be. There are constant hints of the cultural company that Kaufman hopes to keep; Hazel (Samantha Morton), who runs the box office at the theatre, and for whom our hero nourishes a fitful passion, informs him that she has just read “The Trial,” and is then seen grazing the first page of Proust. Nor is it an accident that the play that Caden stages, at the start, is “Death of a Salesman.” Its worn-soled sadness, as well as the insistence that “attention must be paid” to the Willy Lomans of this world, carries over to the movie’s closing act, in which Caden declares his faith in extras, bit players, and other unregarded folk—“They’re all leads in their own stories,” he says.

And what a lot of stories there are. With the MacArthur award, Caden initiates a soaring project. Instead of simply directing a play, he takes possession of a vast, cavernous shell in the city and slowly—horribly slowly—sets about constructing the last word in theatrical happenings. It is decades in the making; a script is followed, yet we have no sense of its having been written down; and most of the dramatis personae seem to be based on real figures in Caden’s life. Hazel, for instance, is represented by Tammy (Emily Watson), and Caden himself by a benign beanpole named Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been following Caden for twenty years, as if researching every inch of the role. Of course, once Sammy intrudes on Caden’s consciousness, he, too, requires a dramatic counterpart, so along comes another beanpole, and when Sammy is unavailable his duties are bravely assumed by Millicent (Dianne Wiest), an actress who looks and sounds nothing like Caden—and so on and on, with every twist in the film sprouting such instant recurrence that it appears no more open to closure than the working out of pi. Here’s the question, then, that must dog any approach to “Synecdoche, New York”: the fundamental things apply in this movie, for sure, but do they stop it from vanishing up its own fundament?

Kaufman has not directed a film before. He remains best known for the scripts that he wrote for “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” both stronger works than this, although his fondness for freakish patterns has hardly deserted him. From the title onward (“synecdoche” sparking against “Schenectady”), it crackles with crossed wires. Caden, sent to an ophthalmologist, hears the word “neurologist” instead. “I think I have blood in my stool,” he later tells Adele. “The stool in your office?” she asks. The first thing to note about this exchange is that it’s not very funny; Kaufman’s film, for all its sophistication, is oddly fond of poop jokes and, indeed, of poop shots. Is there really no better way to dramatize the frail health of your character than by showing the discolored stream of his urine? The problem is not one of bad taste, to which the director is welcome, but the obviousness—dare I say, the dullness—with which he nags away at the sight of debilitation, in body and spirit alike.

There has long been a strain of sorry lassitude in Kaufman’s work, and here it sickens into the morbid. Although Philip Seymour Hoffman appears in almost every scene, he is seldom given the chance to shrug off his blue mood and demonstrate the dazzling range of which he is capable. One longs for the Hoffman of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” all crowing tones and carroty crew cut. I have heard him, in an interview, say how freed up he felt by that film’s director, the late Anthony Minghella, but Kaufman seems to be following the reverse procedure. Such zip as we get is provided by performers in the secondary roles, notably the women: Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and, phlegmatic as ever, Samantha Morton. (The best gag in the film is that Hazel’s home is forever on fire; she lives there quite cheerfully, never explaining the flames, and barely noticing them. Buñuel would be proud of her.) To what end, however, are these actresses devoting their panache? In short, what is “Synecdoche, New York” about?

Well, there are three commonplaces on which it repeatedly riffs. One is what you might call the romantic-pathetic theory of imagination: any alternative reality that we design and furnish, when we conceive a work of art, is always to some extent a stand-in for the puny or pitiful one that we have been personally landed with. The second and most imperishable truth is: we grow old, and perish. And the third says: all you need is love. These are noble principles to pursue; unless the pursuit is waged with gusto, however, it threatens to slump into the sententious, and that is what happens here. With so much screen time being allotted to Caden’s bad marriage and pustular health problems, his majestic production doesn’t get going properly until the second half of the film, and by then we don’t care enough (worse still, we don’t know enough, such is the vagueness of its guiding rubric) to mind whether it triumphs or flops. Compare Dennis Potter’s great mini-series of the nineteen-eighties, “The Singing Detective,” and you will see much the same setup—a wry leading man with a skin disease, inspired by a furious creative itch—rendered with unstinting vigor. And, should you still have a taste for the fancies of a fading man, try Orson Welles’s “The Immortal Story,” or a little picture of his called “Citizen Kane,” all of which, I sometimes think, could be floating within Kane’s cranium, like snow inside a globe. In each case, there is joy—not just a mournful snickering, as carried in Charlie Kaufman’s bag of tricks, but the breath of divine pleasure—in the conjuring of dreams. If you want to show a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, go right ahead, but give that hour all the life you can.

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