Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton, in 'Synecdoche, New York'

Dir. Charlie Kaufman
(R) ★ ½

“Synecdoche” is defined by Merriam-Webster thusly: “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage).” I quote it in full because I don’t think I could boil it down. It’s one of the most confusing definitions I’ve ever read. The dictionary entry needs its own reference guide. Or maybe it’s just been too long since high school English.

What I do understand is that it’s about representation. You reference the sails to stand in for the ship and the boards to stand in for the stage. Perhaps Synecdoche, New York stands in for a movie.

The film is the directorial debut of one of my favorite writers, Charlie Kaufman, the man responsible for three of the most original scripts of the last ten years: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like his previous works, Synecdoche is more concerned with the fractured workings of the mind than with objective reality. His subject is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director from Schenectady, New York, who receives a prestigious grant and hopes to use it to create a performance piece of great truth. (Many of Kaufman’s subjects have been beleaguered artists; methinks this dour, reoccurring figure reveals much about Kaufman himself.)

As he sets out to create his labor of love, the film comes apart. Reality blurs and merges with his creative process. Like the title suggests, it’s all about representation. Seeking truth from his own experiences, he builds sets based on places he lives and works. He casts actors to play himself and the people he loves and then casts more actors to play the actors. Eventually, he puts so much into his representative world — his warehouse set becomes a city unto itself — that it seems nothing represents anything anymore, and everything is meaningless. But I don’t know if that’s a criticism of the film or just a description of its themes.

What I know for sure is that I don’t like the film. It is visually drab. Its tone is relentlessly dreary. Scenes are short and clipped. Time passes erratically. The dialogue doesn’t connect. The characters don’t connect, if you can call them characters. It is filled with such self-pity and misery that I wanted to escape. And some motifs seem without basis — a house on fire, the home of Caden’s lover Hazel (Samantha Morton), is at first absurdly funny, but finally becomes aggravating. This is a torturous film to sit through; it may be the longest two-hour movie ever made.

It is the kind of movie that seems to be talking to itself. Challenging, avant garde films can be brilliant, but they need an entry point, a means by which the audience can become involved, or else it’s not filmmaking, it’s masturbation. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was like that; he hooked us with a noir mystery before pulling the rug out from under us. Synecdoche plays more like Lynch’s Inland Empire; it alienates the audience almost from the start. It closes itself off to us, and we can only watch from a distance — an impenetrable oddity. I cannot dismiss the film, and I admire its ambition, but frankly I am weary of unbearable films with admirable ambition.

Sadly squandered are a promising character and a great performance. Caden is a fascinating man: his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has left him and taken their daughter to Europe, his relationships crumble under his increasing depression, and all that is left for him is to transform his pain into art, but even that crumbles. Hoffman anchors the film as well as he can; the depth of anguish he brings to Caden is heartbreaking. I wish I could have seen this character and this actor brought together for a film better able to communicate him to the audience. There is great beauty and sadness in the last scene, but by then my patience was spent, the narrative had collapsed, and there was no way back from it.

The film is blessed with a remarkable cast that also includes Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Robin Weigert, and Lynn Cohen. I won’t describe their roles, because I’m not sure I properly can. Surely Kaufman can make sense of this material. Perhaps only Kaufman can. But then he should have made it a journal entry and not a movie.

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