Before graduating to the ranks of director with Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman established himself as arguably the most talented screenwriter of his generation -- a fact that earned him the right to make his directorial debut as purposefully alienating as possible. The story concerns theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, after winning the MacArthur genius grant, decides to stage an epic theatrical production about his life. His stated goal is to create something brutally honest, and to that end, he hires actresses who each bear a striking physical resemblance to the women he's loved. He then rehearses them to reenact actual arguments he had with the various ladies in question, in a process that drags on for decades, with Caden eventually hiring actors to play the actors he hired in the first place. This sounds humorously convoluted in theory, but Kaufman, who has designed the movie specifically to deny a viewer any conventional pleasure, has no interest in charming us. Right from the start, Caden is utterly disengaged from his real life -- his massive theater piece is an attempt to understand how he got that way -- and Kaufman utilizes every tool at a filmmaker's disposal (lighting, editing, music, etc.) to make the audience share Caden's total emotional impotence.
Kaufman has written about this kind of pain in his previous scripts; Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation each carry a heavy dose of existential angst. But the directors he's collaborated with have always found a way to make all that pain and struggle remain meaningful for the characters -- and therefore, for the audience as well. Working as a director for the first time, Kaufman tackles his main theme so unsparingly he provides barely a single concession to the viewer aside from casting brilliant actors like Hoffman, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, and Catherine Keener. The result is a straight shot of pure undiluted Charlie Kaufman -- he makes Caden's angst and pain and helplessness and self-loathing feel agonizingly palpable from the first moment to the last. The film never condescends to Caden's emotions, and because of this, you get the sense that Kaufman is sharing his own turmoil -- and for his sake, let's hope that darkness is just a small fraction of his inner-self. In an idea that he's hinted at in his previous scripts, Synecdoche is very much about the dangers of the artist confusing art with life, and more so here than it's ever done in the past, this theme seems to insert Kaufman himself into the story. The film doesn't conjure up any of the characters as vividly as it does the idea of Kaufman, sitting behind the camera, orchestrating everything before you as a giant, tangled expression of how he feels.
The thought that Kaufman himself might be this conflicted about his own artistic gifts is disheartening -- especially because it seems like no other topic interests him as much. But by that same token, there will probably be a cult for this movie no matter what Kaufman does for the rest of his career. The emotional commitment from the director, and the film's weird, offbeat rhythms, guarantee that there will be a niche of fans who will respond strongly to it. But, looking forward for Kaufman, it doesn't seem possible he could have much more to say on the dangers of living in your own head. Synecdoche, New York is the kind of movie that only exceedingly talented filmmakers can get away with, and usually only once in a career. Charlie Kaufman is that talented, but he picked a dangerously early point to cash in his free pass.