The artistic psyche has never been more joylessly explored than in Synecdoche, New York, the gallingly undisciplined directorial debut of revered screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. A self-eulogizing miasma of anxieties, alter-egos and oozing pustules, it takes as its shape the disintegrating mind of a doleful theater director (and Kaufman avatar) named Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in unwavering sad-sack mode), whose life and art are mashed into an increasingly miserabilist ball of wax. The title is a pun on the location of the protagonist’s Schenectady home, though a better egghead name might have been Anhedonia, the term for the inability to experience pleasure (and, incidentally, Woody Allen’s working title for Annie Hall). From his first morbid pronouncement (“I think I’m dying”) to his last breath, Caden is a monochromatically dismal character; when not peeing in sinks or coaching actors for a production of Death of a Salesman, he’s shuffling from doctor to doctor, obsessed with corporeal decay.
No wonder, then, that his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) decides to remain in Berlin with their little daughter following an art exhibit. Dejected, Caden sets out to forge an all-encompassing theatrical masterpiece, a desperate bid for redemption occasionally interrupted by his relationships with the many women in his life. From Fellini to Truffaut to Fosse, films about artists have often been equipped with private harems, and Kaufman here has a formidable gallery of actresses to bounce off of Hoffman’s slumped gloom. There’s Samantha Morton as a frisky box-office worker, Michelle Williams as Caden’s leading lady, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Adele’s German-accented new partner, Hope Davis as a frosty psychiatrist, and Emily Watson as the thespian cast in Kaufman’s characteristically tail-chasing later scenes as Morton’s character in the playwright’s autobiographical opus. Commendable as they are in enduring the film’s ugly wigs, old-age makeup and Jon Brion score, however, the performers are utterly lost inside a pedestrian fugue that feels less a ruminating consciousness laid bare on the screen than a formless display of undigested neuroses.
Synecdoche is a reminder of what a dead-end brilliant screenwriting conceits can be when left by themselves on the screen. Anyone watching Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can see that Kaufman was their true auteur; anybody watching his first solo effort can see how beneficial the presence of a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry was to those pictures. Freed from the influence of collaborators, Kaufman wallows in his thematic fixations like a dieting matron lunging at a box of bonbons; the ensuing bloat is the product of an extraordinarily fecund mind ultimately unable or unwilling to separate the inspired (Caden keeping up with his young daughter by reading the diary she left behind) from the dreadful (the same daughter, now grown and dying, forcing her father to admit to a nonexistent gay liaison). Equally damaging is the militant moroseness that infests even the most whimsical flights of fancy; compare it to 8 ½, where the protagonist’s barrenness is continually contrasted with Fellini’s cinematic fertility. Kaufman may see Caden’s rants (“I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth”) as confessional, but, in a film that seems to shrink as it burrows into itself, a shot of the character looking for blood in his stool is far more telling.