If you traveled the length of John Malkovich's medulla oblongata, hung a sharp left at the desk where Beckett's Krapp recorded his last tape and walked through the adjoining door of the interstellar hotel room at the end of 2001, you might end up somewhere in the vicinity of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York — a two-hour loop-de-loop thrill ride so deep into the eternal gloom of its writer and (first-time) director's spotted mind that the Kaufman-scripted Adaptation seems, by comparison, a sun-drenched landscape epic. Like that film, Synecdoche is a partly confessional, partly satirical investigation into the creative process — and the notion (or the absurdity thereof) that art can lead to understanding.
Time clearly isn't on the side of regional theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the obvious Kaufman surrogate who wakes up on the first day of fall only to hear a poetry professor pontificating on the radio about the season's symbolic value as "the beginning of the end." Pay close attention to things like newspaper headlines and the expiration dates on milk cartons and you'll notice that by the time Caden sits down to a chaotic family breakfast with his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and daughter, Olive, nearly two months seem to have elapsed. Indeed, if it's true that on the calendar of the universe, mankind doesn't show up until sometime around 11 p.m. on December 31, Caden Cotard is a man gripped by the sensation that any moment now, he will hear the chimes of midnight. Little wonder, then, that he's cast his latest production, a revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, with actors in their twenties and thirties. The tragedy, he tells them, comes from the fact that they, too, will someday be old.
So self-absorbed is Caden that he scarcely notices his own marriage is fraying at the seams until Adele absconds to Germany with Olive and a chain-smoking lesbian friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh), while he finds solace in the arms of his younger leading lady (Michelle Williams). But the real turning point comes when he receives one of the MacArthur Foundation's $500,000 "genius grants" and rents a cavernous New York City warehouse to stage his magnum opus — a play about "everything," modeled on his own life and the world around him.
There's no script, per se — only scraps of paper handed to actors, scribbled with motivations like "you lost your job today" and "you were raped last night." Eventually, Caden even casts an actor to play himself directing the play, who in turn casts another actor to play himself. In the name of yet more "brutal truth," the sets are given literal fourth walls, and before all is said and done, there's a warehouse inside the warehouse inside...well, you get the idea. At one point, it's revealed that Caden's literal living theater has been rehearsing without an audience for nearly two decades. Yet the truth, as is its way, remains just out of reach.
Watching Synecdoche, New York, you get the feeling that you're experiencing Kaufman at 200 proof, with no Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry to serve as a sieve for the fulminations of his hyperactive imagination. Given creative carte blanche, he seems to have crammed every idea he's ever had about life, art and that enigma whose name is woman into a single, totemic work. He's willing to try anything, like giving the ditzy box-office girl (Samantha Morton), who fears "dying in the fire," a house perpetually ablaze with orange flame. That makes for a sometimes unruly affair, but one that's as audacious as anything I've seen on a movie screen this year.
When I interviewed Kaufman several years ago, after the release of Eternal Sunshine, he spoke candidly about the fact that he felt he had run dry of ideas and didn't know where he would go from there. That was also around the time that he was said to be writing an original horror screenplay for Jonze, and Synecdoche, New York is the movie that reportedly materialized out of that process. The result is a horror show, all right, albeit one in which the bogeymen are the twin specters of physical and creative death, with Kaufman trying to sort out which of the two is preferable. So it's only fitting that Synecdoche ends not with a fade to black, but rather to white — the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps, or that far more terrifying prospect of the blank page and its infinite possibilities.