Take Don Delillo's White Noise mix in a little of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, stir well, and you might have something that starts to approach Charlie's Kaufman's crazy, visionary film Synecdoche, New York. Caden Cotard is a theater director in his forties, married to a painter, with a young daughter. They live in upstate New York (Schnectady, to be exact). He gets a nasty bump on his head and begins to have all sorts of symptoms that make him fear he is dying. His wife leaves him, he wins a genius grant and tries to create a theater project that is true to his lonely, painful experience of life. No matter how big the warehouse or cast, how much the sets looks like life, how close the dialogue gets to what was actually said, he is never satisfied because it's not life itself. Soon his warehouse contains another warehouse, and he casts an actor to play himself directing the play and another actor to play the actors he is directing. On some level the art you make will always be art, and it is one of the great cliches of the artists who work from ideals, that they will never approach the truth they seek. On the other hand, you don't have to look for ideal life in a work of theatre, if you have people who are actually alive playing the parts, that is a reality you cannot escape even if you try. But this film is about more than an artist who cannot be satisfied with his work, it is about a man who, sadly, cannot be satisfied with life because, in the end, we all die. That pain seems to equal reality for Cotard. And nothing he creates ever gets close to how he feels about it. OK, that's a platitude too, but as in White Noise it's how paralyzing fear of death is expressed that is the interest. I don't imagine either Delillo or Kaufman imagine that they invented existential angst. Charlie Kaufman creates a whacky, nightmarish life for Caden Cotard, precisely visionary and utterly fantastical (that's the part that feels like Terry Gilliam). Every so often, Cotard seems to wake from his dream and realize that another chunk of life has swept by him and still his great work is unfinished, still his wife has not come back to him. It is a tough film because Cotard can be unbearable to be around. A hypochondriacal schlub who just seems to make the same mistakes over and over. But someone who cares to live well and who loves strongly and who, no matter how many people show him love or respect, thinks he is alone in his suffering. And so he is.
The story starts out strongly and features a fantastic cast - Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Diane Wiest. The film seems to go off the rails for a time because, as Cotard becomes sicker, the dream state takes over and gets wilder and wilder. There is a point where I wanted to be more certain what the hell was going on. Is this real? Is this fantasy? This film makes you work. If you want to enjoy what lies at the end of it, you have to persevere through it. What finally emerges is not exactly an original idea - a parable about not letting life pass you by - but the way it is told is original. I think this film has a sense of humor, as well as being both serious and beautiful. Hoffmans's performance is touching and committed. I particularly love the character of Hazel, the box office girl who becomes Cotard's assistant on his grand project. Hazel is utterly devoted to Cotard and to a life in theatre. While she too is lonely and an odd duck, she does not wait around, even while harboring a deep love for Cotard. In one scene we see her buy the house she lives in. The real estate dealer takes her around and one can clearly see fires burning in the walls, smoke seeping through the wallpaper, and yet Hazel buys it and lives in it for the rest of her life. The house is a marvelous evocation of its owner. There is this disaster looming, threatening to burn and destroy her, and yet no one talks about it. The fire is also the passion, that burns beneath her skin. It never destroys the house entirely, it just makes living in it a little warm and chaotic, occassionally a little smoky. That is the way this film operates. It physicalizes its themes. Kaufman is a clever vision maker, whose symbols operate on multiple levels. But he does more than make pictures. This is a director who knows how to work with actors. In the extra features on the dvd, Kaufman talks about the amount of time that Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and he worked on creating the relationship between Cotard and his wife, even though the film begins as the marriage ends. He wanted us to believe that they had shared a past. This director gets actors - smart actors who don't just 'do' but who also think about what they do. He gets that something has to happen to them for us to believe that something is happening to them. That makes this film something more than clever and what could be a trite old story becomes alive in all its whackiness and is worth the work we do to stay with it. Kaufman's vision is smart, fresh, and also moving.