A struggling New York playwright, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is given a massive grant which he uses to create the most elaborate play ever imagined, incorporating his own life, and consuming itself in its own existence.
I’m a big admirer of Charlie Kaufman, and this time he takes on not only the role of writer, but helms the production in his directorial debut, and what results is one of his weirdest films yet. Adaptation was the story of Kaufman himself struggling to adapt a great book for the screen without ruining it. Synecdoche, New York is no longer about Kaufman but maintains the struggling writer concept. This time the writer casts himself in his own play, and becomes consumed by the play in a way that can only be truly understood by watching it.
I put this third in the Kaufman canon, after Adaption and John Malkovich and before Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Human Nature. But it’s first in terms of how surreal it is. Sure Malkovich has a bizarre premise, but beyond its initial concept it’s not that hard to understand. Confessions is based on the memoirs of an eccentric, and Human Nature goes fully in the direction of comedy, making its more peculiar elements feel lighter. Synecdoche, while darkly comic in places, largely plays things seriously, and as such tops the bunch in terms of how staggeringly weird it seems.
Hoffman’s struggling writer is plagued by health problems and emotional problems which weave themselves into the play. But it soon transpires the actor playing him takes on his own character to such an extent that he second guesses his own thoughts, perhaps mirroring Kaufman’s own process of making Adaptation.
The closest point of comparison I have is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Frame of Mind, where Riker is involved in a play that may or may not be real. Imagine that, multiplied to the scale of a stage the size of a city, and a narcissistic director so self involved his own life becomes an insignificant role in a play about his life. Caden’s wife makes bizarrely small paintings for a living, making this feel more like a parody of the self important of artist, and possibly a self deprecating nudge to rival Adaptation.
There’s a sense, as with some of Kaufman’s other work, that he takes such a bizarre view of the normal world, that he reflects this on his audience by making the worlds he presents bizarre in turn. One character, for example, lives in a house permanently on fire. Yet the characters go about their business among the flames, adding up to a truly surreal experience.
Hoffman is, of course, brilliant in the lead, showing a timeless perfection as this troubled, flawed, artist, and Kaufman does a stellar job behind the camera, never allowing this strange film to feel cartoonish. What results is a film that is at times sober and bleak, but also ingenious and fascinating. Encore!