Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is convoluted but fun
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a middle-aged theater director, inclined toward mildly experimental methods onstage and full of anxieties about physical health and unraveling relationships in his private life. He gets a “genius” grant and uses the money to mount a sprawling, elaborate and perpetually incomplete production based on his personal and professional travails.
Cotard’s story, a playfully ambiguous composite self-portrait, is at the center of writer Charlie Kaufman’s first directorial effort. It’s a lavishly detailed combination of psychodrama and tragicomedy—psycho-farce?—that has much in common with the wackily Pirandellian scenarios on which his reputation has been built—Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.
The not entirely coherent portrait of Cotard that emerges here counts for less than Kaufman’s wildly digressive account of the guy’s misadventures with himself and his attempted creations. This mess of a man is a sadly comic figure, an unstable mélange of petty terrors and grand ambitions, and the inconsistencies of chronology and motivation magnify that personal confusion into a surprisingly ebullient comedy of delusion and self-deception.
Hoffman brings a ramshackle authority to the character’s semi-tragic buffoonery, but Synecdoche, New York—which is set mostly in Schenectady, N.Y.—is most engaging when it’s proliferating semi-comic variations on itself, with a couple of decades of Cotard’s life and his fictive imaginings merging in what often feels more like a couple of months.
Characters exchange roles and morph into each other, and into each other’s fictions. Everything revolves around Cotard and his extravagant self-absorption, and yet the most interesting characters in the tale are the women in his life, particularly those portrayed by Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest, and, best of all, Samantha Morton.
It may not make a great deal of sense, but it’s a richly engaging game, while it lasts.