It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge Charlie Kaufman as a genius or something awful close to it. Genius can move the world forward and illuminate the darkest of spaces. Genius can also go right over the heads of all those who are not as fortunate to be counted among the world’s smartest. I don’t mean to imply that Kaufman intentionally speaks over the heads of his audience in his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York”, but rather that he simply didn’t communicate his insight as succinctly as he could have. Kaufman was smart to surround himself with a cast of actors talented enough to pull off the enormously ambitious scope of his project, but despite raising many an intriguing question, he provides very few answers.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, New York, resident and theatre director. We meet Caden on what could be pretty much be any morning, it would seem. He is reading random headlines from the paper; his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) is staring blankly out the window, and their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is contentedly eating her cereal, watching cartoons and asking if she should be concerned about the colour of her poop. It is on this morning, the morning like all the others, that Caden’s life takes that last step over the edge and begins falling to its inevitable demise. His body betrays him with inexplicable afflictions; his wife betrays him shortly after and runs off to Europe with their daughter; and it isn’t long before he is crying in the middle of sex. Anyone in Caden’s position would probably question their reason for living but once Caden gets started on this slippery slope, he realizes just how hard it is to get back up and out.
Caden and Kaufman are not so far from each other. They are both men stuck in their own heads who cannot fully function in society with all its rules and expectations. Caden proceeds to begin mounting his masterpiece when his life falls apart in order to climb out of his own hole. The concept, if you can call it that, is essentially a recreation of everything that is happening in Caden’s life. Seeing it in front of him is supposed to make it all make sense. All it does though is encourage is obsessive self-thinking, to say nothing of the self-loathing. Meanwhile, Kaufman, the man who concocted this complex web, gets tangled up in how intricate it all is. Caden hires an actor to play himself, an assistant and an actress to play that assistant. Before you know it, there is another actor who has stepped in to play Caden and he is bumped to the role of a cleaning lady. It’s art imitating life trying desperately to make sense of what the art really means. Kaufman throws so many concepts up on the screen and alone, some of them are calming while others are chaotic, but never do all of them come together to say anything clearly.
Watching “Synecdoche, New York” is like being trapped in Kaufman’s mind for a couple of hours. There is beauty everywhere around you; there is insight to be imparted at every turn. There is also too much to process in just one sitting. That being said, sitting with it too long only leads to many more unanswered questions and Kaufman has been sitting with it non-stop for years now. He fell deep into the dark caves of his mind and gave us what he could to make sense of it but it wasn’t enough. And if Kaufman can’t make sense of his own genius mind, I’m not sure how he expected us to do it.
Review by Joseph Bélanger