The word labyrinthine was invented to describe Charlie Kaufman's Syncedoche, New York, the ultimate in elliptical and existential navel-gazing. As far as ambitious, poetic and brilliant failures go, Kaufman's directorial debut is singular in its attempt to double down on the meta-narrative. Like a serpent endlessly swallowing its tale, he layers on so many versions of reality and artifice that it becomes impossible to separate the two.
Which is, of course, Kaufman's entire point: No matter how much distance the artist puts between himself and his own life, the two are inseparable. Personal truth cannot be discovered by observation but rather by experience. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) learns this fact the hard way, after spending half a lifetime re-creating the minutiae of his life experience.
A theatrical director in Schenectady, N.Y., hypochondriac Caden is obsessed with decay. Whether it's his opening pronouncement ("I think I'm dying"), his fading marriage or his faltering career, he's a sad sack who recognizes the depths of his failings but is unable to confront them directly. He shuffles between doctors, stages an inspired production of Death of a Salesman, and even examines his daughter's stool for blood — all in an attempt to validate his grim worldview. Then, in a classic example of good news-bad news, Caden wins a MacArthur "genius" grant soon after his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him. He responds by trying to create a play that'll capture his entire life experience, going so far as to build an ever-morphing replica of New York City inside a warehouse. Characters recursively play alter-egos of other characters creating a funhouse mirror of reality that endlessly reflects upon itself. Eventually, even the warehouse is replicated inside a smaller warehouse as Caden attempts to puzzle out every fleeting and fractal moment of his life.
Emotionally draining and self-referential to the nth degree, Synecdoche, New York similarly burrows into itself, offering enough ideas to fill several movies but little narrative drive or emotional accessibility. Both Caden and the film are so relentlessly joyless that it's hard to care. Not enough, anyway. From the git-go Caden's emotions are so stunted, his point of reference so narrow, that we're never invited to take this journey with him, instead we're asked to stand outside, observing his pathetic flailing at arm's length. The experience becomes wholly intellectual. And even that isn't enough.
Kaufman's rambling quasi-magical narrative offers many arresting moments but struggles to gel into anything meaningful. It's the kind of movie that will spark spirited discussion afterward but is a serious drag while you're watching it. Some will abandon ship early, others will scratch their heads and say WTF, and a small band of believers will fall hopelessly in love with its confessional ruminations on love, regret, anger and the artistic psyche.
There's no denying that Kaufman's an inspired and iconoclastic writer. Unfortunately, he's no director. Without Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry to temper his misanthropy and solipsism, Kaufman wallows in thematic obsession. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were clearly his but benefited profoundly from Jonze's and Gondry's humanism and cinematic whimsy. Kaufman's direction lacks both depth and vitality, often feeling like a monochromatic illustration of his script, not a realized film.
Ever since Federico Fellini so brilliantly examined the struggles of the creative process in 8-1/2, filmmakers have been trying to put their own spin on the artistic experience. What many often miss are the contrasts of the protagonist's creative impotence with Fellini's bold and exuberant filmmaking. While Kaufman has no shortage of inspired ironies and breathtaking ideas, he's indulgently and emotionally apocalyptic.
Nothing illustrates this better than a ham-fisted encounter between Caden and his dying adult daughter, which unexpectedly ends with lyrical poignancy. Kaufman tastelessly forces Caden, who's desperate to reconcile, to falsely confess that he abandoned his daughter so he could have anal sex with his gay lover. It's hard to decide whether the scene's a bad joke or just horribly misguided, but it's followed by a moment of aching beauty: The tattoo of a black flower falls, withered, from his daughter's lifeless arm.
If cinematic moments like these are enough to sustain you, Synecdoche offers many small rewards. For most everyone else, the movie will amount to two hours of torture.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.