Magazine article The American Conservative

All the Stage Is a World

Magazine article The American Conservative

All the Stage Is a World

Article excerpt

[Synecdoche, New York]

STARTING WITH 1999's art-house sensation "Being John Malkovich," Charlie Kaufman has cleverly made himself the best-known screenwriter in America by refusing almost all publicity, except what he generates through his own intensely self-referential screenplays. The protagonist of his 2002 comedy "Adaptation" was a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who was trying--and, unsurprisingly, failing--to adapt a New Yorker article about orchids into a big studio movie. Kaufman next dialed back the wit a bit in his masterpiece, the 2004 romantic drama "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

He combines Woody Allen's self-doubt with playwright Tom Stoppard's conceptual razzle-dazzle in the service of metaphysically surrealist plots reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges. Kaufman justifies his movies' intellectual demands by saying, reasonably enough, "One of the things I think is really exciting and joyful about the experience of being an audience member is figuring things out. When you make a connection, it's yours ..."

Having had his say on love in "Eternal Sunshine," Kaufman is back to tell us all about life, death, and art in the first film he's directed. "Synecdoche, New York" is an ultra-ambitious combination of the great artist's summation of his life's work and self-parody.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a community theater director in Schenectady, New York mounting yet another revival of "Death of a Salesman" for the blue-haired subscribers. He's falling apart physically, suffering through an entire "House" season of medical syndromes. Caden's wife (Catherine Keener), an artist who paints microscopic pictures requiring magnifying goggles to view, tells him that he won't be going to her exhibition in Berlin. She's instead taking their four-year-old daughter and a friend, a sinister German lesbian (Jennifer Jason-Leigh).

At this nadir, Caden wins one of those obnoxious MacArthur genius grants. His health stabilizes, and the women around him ("Synecdoche" features seven excellent actresses) look more fondly upon him. He decides to unleash his creative powers on a vast theater project that will tell "the brutal truth" about, well, everything. In his bid for artistic immortality, he rents a cavernous warehouse in New York City, employs countless carpenters to build mockups of New York streets inside, and hires a cast of thousands to live out their lives under his artistic direction. …

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