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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Synedoche, New York: Let's put on a show

Those of you who've spent your whole lives contemplating your deaths may get a big kick out of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman's tragicomic slide down the rabbit hole of loneliness and despair. Kaufman, the writer of such Moëbius-strip curios as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the guy never meta-narrative he didn't like), has moved over to the director's chair. And the good news is that he seems to think like a director; the movie is fully realized, a whole world unto itself. The bad news, if that's what you want to call it, is that his mood hasn't improved. Life, to Kaufman, is a series of afflictions for which the only cure - and the final stab of pain - is death. Did I mention that the movie's basically a comedy?

A comedy in the Beckettian sense, anyway. (With life veering between insanity and inanity, what can you do but laugh?) Unfortunately for them, the characters aren't in on the joke. Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking even scuzzier than usual, is Caden Cotard, a New York theater director whose life is falling apart like a bad watch. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener, in full steely-angst mode), has taken off for Berlin with their 4-year-old daughter (Sadie Goldstein) and what appears to be her lesbian lover (Jennifer Jason Smith). Meanwhile, Cotard's body has erupted in pustules and various other plague-like manifestations. And his art, for which he just received a MacArthur genius grant, offers him, instead of consolation, only more desolation.

Still, the movie's about that old philosophical chestnut, the relationship of art to life. And Kaufman, who also wrote Adaptation, knows his way around the various boundaries between the two. With his grant money, Cotard starts work on a play that will encompass his whole life. Actors are hired, rehearsals are begun, and sets are built in a warehouse that seems to grow along with Cotard's ambitions. He wants to get it all up there on the stage: the disintegrating relationship with his wife, the aborted relationships with other women, plus the aborted relationships with the women hired to play the other women (and the women who play them). The guy hired to play Cotard (Tom Noonan) finally gets to the scene where he has to hire a guy to play himself.

And so on and so on, in an infinite regress of emotional futility. Synecdoche, New York could be accused of losing focus as it travels ever deeper up its own navel. And some may tire of Cotard's relentless self-absorption, just as the other characters do. But solipsism is Kaufman's true métier; it's where his own heart lies. And the movie generates a surprising amount of feeling, even if most of that feeling is what we would describe as negative, from slight melancholy to outright anguish. But the point is to be truthful, not comforting, as Cotard would be the first to argue. And if you've ever lain in bed late at night, searching in the darkness for life's meaning, you may find yourself developing a soft spot for this sad little movie.

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