Seeing Synecdoche, New York, I was reminded of Inland Empire, David Lynch's 3 hour long surrealism extravaganza that made absolutely no sense. Both make their audiences work hard to put everything together. And while that work leads nowhere, the ride still seems worth taking. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich)'s latest film as writer and first as director, is more accessible than Inland Empire but far less than his other films. The movie goes further and further into confusion as it develops, until time and reality are completely unknown. While Kaufman's methods work for most of the movie, he takes them too far and leaves viewers behind.
The movie begins with comic dread. Theater director Caden Cotard (a fantastic as always Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds his body and marriage simultaneously collapsing. He's passed off from doctor to doctor, all serious and useless. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) tells their therapist (Hope Davis) she fantasizes about Caden's death. Caden sees himself appear on TV screens and billboards. Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office girl with a crush on Caden, moves into a house constantly on fire. All of these surreal details externalize Caden's feelings in a funny and often recognizable way. These moments of comic absurdity are the film's best.
But when Adele leaves with their daughter Olive for Germany to become a famous artist, Caden's world gets even futher off. When Hazel tells him it hasn't been a week but a year since Adele left, Caden's confusion in the passing of time is ours as well. What keeps Caden focused is the massive play he creates in an effort to find something "true." Inside a New York City warehouse, the play features a cast of hundreds of actors that recreate the city in constant rehearsals with no opening night in sight. The play becomes yet another externalization as it begins to focus on Caden's own life. Not only must he cast someone to play him, but soon his double must cast himself for the play-within-the-play-within-the-movie. While the multiplying of realities can be funny, you can see how it starts to get confusing real fast.
Even with the jumps in time and questions of what is real and what is fantasy/nightmare, the movie has a certain appealing flow. Individual scenes may not make sense, but you can suss out certain themes in Caden's life and his play. But by the end, cohesive statements clearly only scratch the surface. Characters that explain the film's meaning seem to come up short. In the final third, the movie becomes increasingly emotional in the ideas it wants to express. But logic has been so long ago tossed out the window that it is difficult to understand what it so desperately wants to express. You understand you are supposed to feel something, but the movie can't explain what.
As I'm sure was Kaufman's intention, the movie begins to feel a lot like the play within. Kaufman begins to resemble Caden, keeping his film too much within his own head to be ready for an audience. He proves himself a perfectly capable director, finding a style that fuses elements of his previous directors, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. But it may have helped if he had to explain his vision to someone. Many individual moments of the film, especially early on, are as good as anything in previous Kaufman movies. The strong cast gives fantastic performances as their characters age over decades. If you like Kaufman's writing and seeing something completely different, this is definitely worthwhile. But too much of the movie is trapped inside Kaufman's mind for it to quite be the triumph it aspires to be.