Through the Looking-Glass: Charlie Kaufman's Mind-Bending Directorial Debut Is Both Big and Clever
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Synecdoche, New York (15)
dir: Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman is a rarity among screenwriters, having explored the same preoccupations (the dissolution of identity, the comforts and cruelty of storytelling) in a number of scripts realised by different directors, not one of whom has compromised his authorial identity. Only the most venerated auteur enjoys the kind of freedom Kaufman has had since setting out his stall in the pop--culture hall of mirrors a decade ago with Being John Malkovich. No wonder his debut as a director, staggeringly inventive though it is, feels less like the arrival of a bold voice than the continuation of a monologue, albeit one delivered by a madman.
One of the new film's running jokes concerns the gnomic, off-putting titles that the theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suggests for his latest opus. That's rich coming from a movie called Synecdoche, New York. Cinemagoers will need to choose between rehearsing phonetically the title ("Sih-neck-doh-kee") before approaching the ticket desk, or chickening out and asking for one adult for screen two, please. Synecdoche means a whole that represents the part ("the law", say, standing in for "the police"), or vice versa. But you knew that. The noun also chimes with the town of Schenectady, New York, where the morbid, visibly decaying Caden lives with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their daughter. Notice is served that this will be a work of puns and echoes, doublings and treblings.
Caden becomes involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a sprightly box-office assistant. In a Bunuelian touch, Hazel lives in a house that is permanently on fire. She informs the estate agent, who is showing her around the smoke-fogged rooms, that she is concerned about perishing in the blaze. The woman concedes that, yes, it is rather a worry. The scene is less startling for its surrealism than for its brief departure from Caden's point of view. Perhaps it's some kind of tenuous joke that the only scene which permits us any breathing space beyond his suffocatingly neurotic perspective is one in which Hazel courts death from smoke inhalation.
When Caden receives a MacArthur grant, which drops into his life as randomly as the various ailments (pustules, seizures, impotence) that afflict him, he decides to create a work that is "big and true and tough." We may deduce he's not talking about Rent. …