In his review of “Synecdoche, New York,” Roger Ebert called Charlie Kaufman “one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium.” I agree with Ebert on the basis of Kaufman’s expansive imagination. Like the mythic Daedalus, Kaufman builds labyrinthine structures so complex and so dangerous that he himself can barely escape from them. When I left the theater, I had an inclination to check the obituary pages for Kaufman’s name, just to be sure this mad genius had survived not only the painstaking blueprint for “Synecdoche” but its realization, as well. (The film is also Kaufman’s directorial debut, which means — for better or for worse — that his personal vision bows to no authority but his own.)
Unsurprisingly, the main character of “Synecdoche” — a theater director named Caden Cotard, played by the always dependable Philip Seymour Hoffman — is in a situation similar to Kaufman’s. Growing old and lonely, Cotard believes he has one last chance to make the “pure and true” play he’s always dreamed of. Luckily, he wins a prestigious prize that grants him total financial freedom, and so he decides to embark on a magnanimous endeavor that includes building a life-size replica of New York City. With Kaufman’s characteristic wit and inspired use of nonsensical devices, “Synecdoche” documents the increasingly complicated entanglement between Cotard’s life and his final project. The film is ornamented by the talent and beauty of several actresses: Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton, each of whom becomes both actor and character in Cotard’s untitled play.
Kaufman’s most common tic as a screenwriter is to problematize the very process of screenwriting. In “Adaptation,” he confronted the exigencies of inspiration. In “Being John Malkovich,” he explored how one mind (be it actor’s, writer’s or puppeteer’s) comes to occupy another. In “Eternal Sunshine” — still his best work — Kaufman questioned the conventional wisdom that a writer must edit out what he does not understand about the world, or himself.
In the monumental “Synecdoche,” Kaufman problematizes all of this; he even problematizes problematization. Once Cotard casts his doppelganger in the role of fictional director, he is free to wither and eventually die, leaving behind actors playing fictional characters playing fictional characters, replicas standing in for replicas — an endlessly replicating universe inhabited and run by simulacra.
But this narrative of expansion is not the story of “Synecdoche” — at least, not exactly. Cotard sticks around long enough to, as he says, “have a hand in it.” This synecdochal “hand” prevents the play from departing on the maiden voyage that would render the real Cotard obsolete.
It is no mistake that Hoffman’s character defers wrapping up his play with a title. He knows that titles — words — are arbitrary; you can create your own life, but you cannot put a title on it.
It is also no mistake that the title of the film itself serves two seemingly unrelated ends. The pun on Schenectady reminds us that we are not entirely in control of language, and the privileging of synecdoche as a device gestures toward a larger hole: “Synecdoche, New York” stands in for — what? The world? Charlie Kaufman? Everything and everyone for all time?
The question here is one of ambition: Just how universal does the film want to be? No matter the answer, we somehow feel “Synecdoche” comes close to achieving its goal, but — perhaps necessarily — fails. I believe it to be a noble failure well worth the resulting vertigo. Strangeness of the caliber found in “Synecdoche” is conspicuously absent from the American Cineplex these days, though I would argue in another piece that tiny glimpses of the uncanny can be caught in the most banal of places — in “Twilight,” for instance — if you know what you’re looking for.