His life in ruins after his wife leaves, hypochondriac theatre director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) stages a play of his life — with actors playing his friends, lovers and eventually, himself. Fiction and reality soon blur; is art imitating life, or vice versa?
One can only imagine what must have been rattling around Charlie Kaufman’s labyrinthine melon the day he conjured up Synecdoche, New York. Did he discover an errant gray nasal hair that sent him spiraling into a bender of solipsistic dementia? An ingrown toenail portending the inevitable finality of death? Perhaps the former sitcom writer simply caught that episode of Seinfeld where the gang pitch their show and cross paths with their actor doppelgangers, and wondered — as the space-time rip opened up in his bowl of cereal — what it might it be like re-imagined as an existentialist sci-fi skit. “It’s a film about… nothing,” you can hear him explaining to puzzled studio suits.
It turns out that Synecdoche — that’s sih-neck-doh-kee, if you’re playing at home — is a film about many things; sometimes so numerous that it can barely contain them. Originally intended as a horror movie for Spike Jonze (who filmed his scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Kaufman’s directorial debut is an eternal nightmare of the spotty mind; a slipstream of wild permutations and eccentric comedy that defies easy labeling. Hoffman’s Cotard (the name’s a spoiler; look it up later) begins as a typically neurotic Kaufman protagonist before his simulacrum of life plunges the film into the discord of alternate reality flux. Everything appears to be moving forward and backwards around him — friends, lovers, time — as his never-ending play becomes an epic colony for his psychosis.
This shift from everyday paranoia to narrative mania requires a leap of faith from the audience. Time lurches abruptly while Cotard remains the same; life moves on without him, characters die and are replaced by actors, and imagination collapses into memory. It’s surreal logic, but no dream. Kaufman presents the simultaneous existence of dimensions matter-of-factly: people and places are transposed, while bizarre scenes, like a perpetually burning house, assume the familiarity of the everyday. Synecdoche is up there with the best of cinema’s subconscious riddles, more so for the fact that the director abstains from leaning on the traditional tricks of the genre.
Yet the film isn’t some navel-gazing exercise in art for art’s sake. Kaufman’s writing retains the comedic pathos he threaded into his previous work. At times Synecdoche threatens to buckle under the surfeit of tangents, and the viewer with little patience will be left paralysed by the mind games. As a director, Kaufman doesn’t possess the levity that Jonze and Eternal Sunshine’s Michel Gondry deployed to bounce his ideas into pop vignettes, and there are points you wish he’d edited his extravaganza into a more succinct thesis. Fortunately he never takes himself too seriously, turning a highbrow reference into a slapstick gag or indulging gross-out humour alongside fatal despair.
In the end, it’s uncertain what transpired — a minute or a millennium could have passed, who knows? Cotard’s one-word kiss-off will have some reaching for the noose, yet others will delight for days pondering the spectacular, terrifying, plain old weird place the mind can be.