Charlie Kaufman is not a happy guy. That isn’t news, exactly—all of the films he’s written have been suffused to varying degrees with anxiety, melancholy, emotional paralysis, crippling self-doubt. But the astonishing level of creativity and sheer lunacy in Kaufman’s screenplays, plus his frequent collaborations with such merry pranksters as Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), have leavened his sensibility to a large degree. Not until Synecdoche, New York, which Kaufman opted to direct himself after Jonze proved unavailable, have we been privy to a good long drag from the man’s completely unfiltered consciousness. And I feel compelled to issue a Critic General’s Warning: Unremitting bleakness may result in viewer tedium, and futile attempts to follow this film’s maddeningly recursive storyline have been demonstrated to cause painful migraine headaches in laboratory animals.
The title alone demands a lengthy essay. All I have room to note here is that “synecdoche”—in addition to being a play on Schenectady, the city in upstate New York where much of the action takes place—is a figure of speech in which one part of an object represents its entirety (e.g., referring to your car as your “wheels”). That isn’t nearly good enough for ailing theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), however. Despondent after his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their daughter with her, and fearful that he’s accomplished nothing of lasting value, Caden takes the money he receives from a MacArthur genius grant and rents an impossibly massive warehouse, within which he constructs a full-scale replica of New York, populated by actors playing himself and his various girlfriends (Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams), and eventually also the actors playing the actors playing himself and his various girlfriends. I lost count of the number of warehouses within warehouses at three; there may well be more.
Ambitious to the point of near-insanity, Synecdoche, New York tackles every big theme known to man—it’s essentially about life itself, and how it ought to be lived. And given the distressing timidity of most indie filmmaking, it’s impossible not to admire Kaufman’s chutzpah and integrity. But for all its earnest intelligence, Synecdoche winds up being such a dour exercise in solipsism that watching it makes you feel as if you’ve taken up permanent residence in the Malkovich-Malkovich feedback loop, except that here none of the Malkoviches are midgets or torch singers or anything remotely amusing. It’s just one dumpy dude whining, multiplied a hundredfold. That the movie itself seems just as gargantuanly misguided as Caden’s epic theatrical workshop may be intentional—it almost certainly is, knowing Kaufman—but that doesn’t make the result any less enervating to watch.
To be sure, there are brilliant moments and inspired ideas scattered throughout, as you’d expect. Among other virtues, Synecdoche boasts some of the most unexpected and jarring chronology leaps in the history of narrative film, so casual that you’re never entirely sure whether they’re real or not; many years will pass almost without notice, just as they sometimes seem to do in our own lives. But even the ostensibly light, playful touches, like one character’s house being perpetually on fire, feel weirdly labored and oppressive. You can actually imagine Synecdoche having been made by Nicolas Cage’s depressive “Charlie Kaufman” from Adaptation, and by the second morosely surreal hour, you can’t help but long for a dash of Donald. At the very least, you want to form a search party to help extricate Kaufman from deep within his own ass.