Head Case

sarris2 8 Head CaseSynecdoche, New York
Running time 124 minutes
Written and
directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, from his own screenplay, begins with its title as a curious play on words between Schenectady, N.Y., and synecdoche, a word never spoken aloud in formal or conversational speech, but still widely known for the figure of language to which it refers. The film ends in an abyss of total despair over the inevitability of death. What happens in between is often unclear, but what I do understand is the possibility that some viewers will consider the film the worst they have ever seen, while others will judge it to be one of the best of the current crop of attractions. I find myself somewhere in the middle, impressed by its originality, but depressed by its lack of coherence and narrative flow.

This is the first film Mr. Kaufman has directed as well as written after he achieved a certain cachet and an Oscar for supplying quirky screenplays for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), Michel Gondry’s Human Nature (2001), Mr. Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Mr. Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). These are all films with consistently excellent casts who simulate human emotions without ever really exploring them or bringing them to fruition. Nor are these forays into fantasy funny enough to cross over into the classical comic genres, though Mr. Kaufman’s satiric imagination overflows with wild conceits about the indignities and absurdities of everyday existence.

In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a hypochondriac avant-garde theater director, Caden Cotard (what a fancifully Frenchified name!), afflicted by a marriage gone sour with nagging wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), a talented miniature painter. Their whiny 4-year-old daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), does her bothersome best by casually eliminating radioactive green feces from her diseased intestines, but Caden and Adele are too consumed by their mutual melancholia to pay much attention. When they consult a couples therapist, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), her ditsy-blond aggressive flirtatiousness cannot conceal her seeming delight in any signs of marital discord. In this role, Ms. Davis reveals herself to be a first-rate farceuse.

For his part, Caden consults an ever narrowing roster of medical specialists to treat his array of psychosomatic ailments. This clearly satirical section of the film contains what few laugh-seeking occasions there are, and even these are muffled by our own growing awareness of the terminal dysfunction of our own real-life health system.

But once Caden gets down to his ever more chaotically staged and cast theatrical productions, the proceedings become excessively cerebral and, thereby, hopelessly confused. Indeed, the only other significant male member of the cast, Tom Noonan as the ill-fated Sammy Barnathan, spends much of his time trying to be Caden’s alter ego without success. But I will say this for Mr. Kaufman: He has assembled an array of interchangeably blond bombshells—Samantha Morton, Emily Watson and Michelle Williams, with Jennifer Jason Leigh deployed as Adele’s lesbian lover in a scene in Berlin, where Adele and Olive have gone. In fact, Caden’s bedside scene with Adele is played in German with English subtitles. There is much talk of tattoos on both Adele and Olive with vaguely sinister implications. And there is a nastily naughty sideshow scene I frankly didn’t understand, so besotted was I by all the bizarre nudity on display. Yet the most surreal segment of the production is the incredibly massive city-size theatrical extravaganza Caden undertakes after obtaining a MacArthur grant for his enormous success with a rejuvenated reworking of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman cast entirely with young people.

The one recurring theme in Caden’s musings is the fragility of supposed human “connections” severed by the savagery of time and death. Mr. Kaufman at 50 seems too obsessively concerned with the limits imposed on us all. At least that is the judgment of one 80-year-old geezer film critic. Still, Mr. Kaufman can be credited with a stylistic and thematic originality that seems to come from a troubled mind and heart. There is no lack of seriousness in Synecdoche, New York, just a lack of psychological development and narrative flow, and that is just about all the cinema needs to battle the demons of doubt and death waiting outside in the real world while we dream a bit in the dark about a more benign and orderly universe. This is not to deny that Mr. Hoffman is emerging as one of our greatest actors, and he alone makes this film worth seeing.

asarris@observer.com