“You can’t feel sympathy for someone that’s depressed?
The above words might as well be on the playbill, somewhere before and after the name of Synecdoche, New York’s first-time director, Charlie Kaufman, celebrated screenwriter of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not only because depression is a theme that we’ve come to expect from Kaufman, but because the movie in question works so hard to establish it as a condition. There are few real characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays depression, which is named Caden in this movie. As far as he is allowed, he does a good job. His depression is infectious. It seems that you are meant to feel sorry for him, it’s the only aspect of his character that you can cling to, but there is nothing particularly endearing about symptom.
Caden has many chances to display his: his marriage is failing; he’s diagnosed with a series of mysterious and frightening diseases; he’s lonely. But it’s not really enough for a character to tell you that he is lonely, that must be revealed over the natural course of a plot: in Adaptation, it was during Kaufman’s attempt to turn a book about orchids into a movie; in Eternal Sunshine, it was through memories and responses to a failed relationship. Both movies were not straightforward in their approach, but they approached something and they succeeded, a fact Synecdoche does its best to ignore. The plot is hard to relate sensibly, but I will explain the aspect that is most compelling: Caden is directing a show based exactly on his life, endlessly workshopped in a New York warehouse containing a near-exact replica of New York. His wife and mistress are cast, his neighbours, a man is hired to play his doppelganger, another is hired to play his doppelganger’s doppelganger. The concept would be interesting, if only Caden had a life worth aping.Lacking any kind of meaningful story, the purpose of Caden’s narcisstic, untitled play is to capture Truth. He states repeatedly that he wants it to be about life, everything that’s in it, though he seems to believe that life is chiefly about misery. It’s a difficult theme for Kaufman’s movie, especially when you consider that the story is created in a vacuum. Character and plot are surrendered to concept, and so a movie that declares itself to be about everything turns out to be about nothing.
There is a lot in Synecdoche. Too much. I provide a telling example, which was only discovered reading through one of many reviews: when Caden wakes up at the very beginning of the movie it is September, when he comes down for breakfast it is October, and in the next scene it is November. At first glance this sounds interesting, but it seems to have little bearing on the plot or any of the following scenes. It’s too clever a detail hidden too cleverly, and since it’s so quickly abandoned you wonder why it was included in the first place. Is there a secret story running underneath Synecdoche? Maybe. It’s been suggested, for instance, that Caden has died at some point of the first half of the movie. Okay. Does it matter? No. Do you care? Not really.
The problem with Synecdoche is that it buries you under a barrage of such details, twisting over and clinging to themselves like choking ivy. Things happen so casually and fantastically that they cease to happen, even if the entire movie is a dream. Caden’s four-year-old daughter grows up estranged and becomes a celebrated stripper, and as she is dying of cancer she accuses him of running away and taking a homosexual lover; Caden has a second daughter and forgets her entirely; the house of his one-time mistress (and long-term infatuation) is perpetually on fire; his doppelganger has been following him for years learning his role, well before Caden conceived of the project; at one point Caden steals away from his current wife to moonlight as Ellen, his ex-wife’s housecleaner; his doppelganger commits suicide; the play is workshopped over the course of thirty years, perhaps longer, but is never produced. I could go on, but I worry about the consequences of forcing you to read a comprehensive list.
It’s hard not to relate all of this to an incident from Adaptation: Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) attends a screenwriting seminar, desperate for ideas on how to end his movie. He puts his hand up and asks whether or not it isn’t artificial to rely on plot, since nothing ever happens in life. His host reacts with hostility, something along the lines of “What the hell do you mean, nothing happens? Of course things happen! Are you fucking kidding me?” It seems that Kaufman has moved from one extreme to another. The result is completely unsatisfying.