Untangling Charlie Kaufman

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Byline: Jeremy McCarter

Up all night with the director of 'Synecdoche'

This is lame. I really should not be writing myself into an essay about Charlie Kaufman. Or should I? Kaufman does that sort of thing all the time. In "Adaptation," for instance: before we see Nicolas Cage, his voice-over tells us all we need to know about his self-loathing, creatively frustrated character--whose name is Charlie Kaufman. Does his self-dramatization mean that the way to disentangle his mysteries is through some kind of mimetic first-person device? This would be easier to do if I hadn't spent the previous two days clicking around polling Web sites like a rat pressing a bar for more crack. Now I'm blocked and past deadline. God, this is lame.

But then so is "Synecdoche, New York." OK, it's not that bad. But it is disappointing. Will Kaufman understand that I say that with love? I adore his films--and his legit work. His sound play "Hope Leaves the Theater" wrecked my head so completely three years ago that I started a company to put on sound plays (which are like staged radio plays, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure). So the news that he'd be making his film-directing debut with a story about a theater director gave me high expectations. Well, higher expectations. "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" are the work of one of the most compelling writers in any medium: every Kaufman project is cause for excitement at this point.

The hero of this latest tale is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose health is failing and whose wife (Catherine Keener) is leaving. After winning a MacArthur grant, he takes over a massive warehouse and stages a full-scale replica of his life, which soon consumes him. I'm making this sound too tidy. It's a weird movie, with sudden, unexplained time lapses, a paramour (Samantha Morton) who lives in a house that's always on fire, a diary that Harry Potter-ishly updates itself, and much more along these twisty lines. It also has flashes of typically beautiful Kaufman dialogue (like the chimera speech, which I'll not spoil by quoting) and an absurdly talented cast. Yet even on repeat visits to the film--I know you intend your movies to be seen more than once, Charlie--Caden's 50-year ordeal doesn't develop much emotional weight. Why do some scenes that are supposed to be particularly affecting--as when, toward the end, an actress (Dianne Wiest) takes the reins from the exhausted Caden--feel so uninvolving? A good question. A better question: can the unmistakable echoes of a past master in this film bring us closer to understanding the potency and allure of Kaufman's odd body of work? …