Even by Charlie Kaufman’s standards, Synechdoche, New York is a weird movie.
Charlie Kaufman made his big splash writing Being John Malkovich for Spike Jonze, and followed that up with the even more bewildering meta-movie Adaptation, a movie about writing a movie based on a New Yorker article. Adaptation featured a device wherein Charlie, a character in the movie based on the writer, grapples with his (possibly imaginary) brother Donald’s much more “mainstream” sensibilities, even as the movie itself veers in the direction of Donald’s inclinations to normality.
Synechdoche shows no such compunctions.
Caden Cotard (portrayed as simultaneously egomaniacal and pitiful by Philip Seymour Hoffman – at least for a while) is directing a play, based on his own life, but he’s been funded by the MacArthur Genius Grant, so it has to be a masterpiece or he will never be satisfied. As the movie progresses, his obsession with genius, masterpiece and perfection gets in the way of finishing the work, just as in Adaptation. But it goes further then that when his unfinished play starts to take on a life of its own, with actors taking over the lives of the real people they’re portraying. And in the meantime, Cotard’s life starts to warp along with the play.
Being John Malkovich was, in many respects, a movie about the experience of “dream logic”, wherein the many other characters seemed to take for granted bizarre assumptions about the world to which the protagonist, Craig Schwartz, was not privy. Synechdoche doesn’t rely on a point-of-view character for that: its protagonist, Cotard is just as prone to the constantly warping reality of the movie as every other character. So when years skip by in the blink of an eye, when buildings and rooms change shape, when the utterly absurd becomes the status quo, he’s right along for the ride.
So where does that leave the audience? We get to experience the terrifying perception that life is whizzing past us, powerless to affect the outcome of our actions; to the extent that we’re sympathizing with Cotard, we watch his body, his dreams and his life fall apart slowly. His name is a clue to why: the Cotard Delusion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotard_delusion) is a condition where it feels like the sufferer is already dead, but somehow still moving around.
Like Adaptation, the movie is preoccupied with the creation of art, filtered through the many flavours of madness through which genius (real or imagine) must often be focused. But it spends a lot of time exploring a variety of psychological conditions, without ever spelling them out. The Cotard delusion is one, but another is the related Capgras Delusion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capgras_delusion), about having people in one’s life replaced by impostors. The experience of alienation, confusion and frustration are, of course, tempered by the skill Kaufman shows in his directorial debut, making an utterly unconventional movie very watchable.
Adaptation may be the best movie ever about finishing work on a deadline, about art, “inside the box”. Synechdoche, New York is – among its many contemplations about the nature of “normality” and perception – a warning about what happens when there is no box, no deadline constraining one’s pursuit of art. And it can take you over.