'Synecdoche, New York': Nowhere Man, By Kurt Loder

Philip Seymour Hoffman adrift in Charlie Kaufman's alternate universe.

Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter for whom "brilliant" is the default adjective, is reported to have been displeased in the past with what some directors have done with his scripts (notably George Clooney, with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"). Now, with "Synecdoche, New York," Kaufman has directed one himself. The result is a picture that is (a) brilliant, in scattered parts, but also (b) a reminder that virtually every writer needs an editor.

The movie is about failure, decay and death, pretty much in that order. Oh, and confusion, possibly your own. It's presented as a comedy (well, of a Kaufmanian sort), but it's not exactly light on its feet. Philip Seymour Hoffman, usually such a fascinating actor to watch, is here sunk deep in shlubbiness as Caden Cotard, a mediocre director of plays stranded in the theatrical outback of Schenectady, New York. (Cotard's Syndrome — meaningfully, no doubt — is the psychiatric delusion that one is dead or rotting, or that the world no longer exists.) Caden is obsessed with disease and dying; his wife, Adele (the unconquerable Catherine Keener), thinks a lot about her husband dying, too, but in a hopeful way. Adele is an artist — she paints pictures so tiny they require headset magnification to make out what's going on in them. When she scores an exhibition of her work in Berlin, she leaves Caden behind but takes their 4-year-old daughter along. Not a good sign, but what can Caden do? As someone says at one point or another, "He lives in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis."

At the local community theater over which he glumly presides, Caden is staging a production of (what else?) "Death of a Salesman." On his own now, he strikes up a flirtation with the bosomy box-office ticket girl, Hazel (Samantha Morton). When Hazel sets out in search of a house to buy, we see that the one she selects is on fire. She takes it. (This house-afire gag is funny the first time we see it; whether we need to see it again is a question to which the answer is no.)

Caden begins to have trouble keeping track of time. When he laments to Hazel that Adele has been gone for a year now, she tells him, "It's been a week." He consults a therapist (Hope Davis), who's not a lot of help. (She recommends to him a novel written by a 4-year-old boy: "He killed himself when he was 5.") To make things more complicated — although not nearly as complicated as they'll soon become — Caden is also being followed by a tall, balding man named Sammy (Tom Noonan). Why? Be patient.

If I may hurry things along a bit, Caden, who doesn't seem overly encumbered by talent, is suddenly awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, which will allow him to stage the play of his life — literally — in a huge, hangar-like warehouse in New York. He builds enormous sets that look like ... New York. He hires actors to play himself and the other people who clutter his existence. He is, you see, observing his life rather than living it. At one point, Sammy makes a bid for the role of Caden. "I've been following you for 20 years," he says. "Hire me, and you'll find out who you truly are." After a while, cast and crew begin growing restive — rehearsals have been going on for 17 years. (At this point in the film, that sounds about right.)

I've passed over Caden's plague of boils, his daughter's green poop, a heavily tattooed woman dying in a German hospital and dozens of other plot eccentricities that I think we can continue passing over. The movie's message is stated forthrightly, not to say repeatedly: "I'm very lonely." "The end is built into the beginning." "After death, there's nothing." Anyone unfamiliar with this worldview has clearly never sat through some of Woody Allen's less-popular pictures.

As the cast and the concept of Caden's play metastasize, there are some surreally funny moments. Many more moments, unfortunately, are surreal in the manner of so what? And while a remarkable number of fine actresses pass through Kaufman's conceptual clamor — Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest — the prosthetic aging makeup under which some of them are obscured and the relentless shifting of their characters make it a little difficult to tell who's who and what's what and why.

There are parts of the movie that confirm Kaufman's brilliance as a writer (as if that's ever been in doubt). And the picture is certainly ambitious — although toward the end he seems to be floundering a bit. But "Synecdoche" is less a demonstration of his gifts as a director (which are not overwhelmingly apparent) than it is an illustration of why he still needs one.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Changeling" and "Pride and Glory," also new in theaters this week.

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