If you are an adolescent male, real or imagined, and you crave nurturance and recognition, and can’t stand that you do, the man-boy movie paradigm is for you. And if you’re afraid that liking movies such as Step Brothers or Pineapple Express or Zack and Miri Make a Porno or Role Models makes you less thoughtfully sensitive than you had hoped to seem, try Synecdoche, New York.
This isn’t just another of those typically raunchy R-rated Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith or Paul Rudd/David Wain comedies about reality-refusing dudes being unable to grow up. This is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, most famously of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation, making his directorial debut. This is a film about The Human Condition, and The Creative Process. Don’t worry: Kaufman likes poo jokes too. It’s just that he also likes to dress them up with existential despair. No one really wants to admit it, but this guy has the man-boy movie wired.
For if there is one thing Charlie Kaufman understands about the crisis of the modern male, it is the emotional value of gratuitousness. Thus it is not easy or entirely fair to summarize Synecdoche, New York, but necessary to say at least that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a playwright and theater director so anxious about his corporeal and creative limitations that he mounts an epic autobiographical production within a full-scale New York City replica set in a giant abandoned warehouse.
“The idea is to do a massive theater piece,” he explains early on. He wants it to be true, he says, and uncompromising, but beyond that he doesn’t have many specifics. Maybe he doesn’t need them: Caden has just received the MacArthur “genius grant,” an award well known for being spendable however its esteemed recipients see fit, whether they have a plan or not. Is Caden a genius? Well, his recent production of Death of a Salesman cast a conspicuously youthful actor as Willy Loman, in order poignantly to suggest that life, with all its crushing disappointments, will one day drain that young lad’s vitality too. And maybe also in order to signify the thoroughly depressing aura of community-theater mediocrity, from which Caden has been hoping to escape.
So he gets busy with his work, knowing only that it must be massive. To the man-boy, size definitely matters. Quickly and inevitably, Caden’s life and his play wind around each other and into a hall of fun-house mirrors. He hires a guy (Tom Noonan), who’s been stalking him for years, to play him in the play. He hires his highly affectionate box-office attendant, Hazel (Samantha Morton), as a stage manager, then takes a shine to her, then hires a woman (Emily Watson) to play her in the play, then gets upset when the actor playing him takes a shine to the real Hazel instead of the actress playing Hazel. Then he tries to work that upset into the play. And so it goes. Life is so complicatedly humiliating, Kaufman wants to remind you. Unfortunately, his way of doing that is simple-mindedly aggrandizing.
Here’s another clue to Synecdoche, New York’s celebration of willfully stunted male adolescence: Its falsely venerating attitude toward women, which consists mostly of wanting their attention. It banks on the notion that in their eyes, this lonesome, obsessive, self-tortured soul is at least preferable to the more common breed of alpha-male asshole.
And yes, it has a point there.
Still, when Caden’s artist wife (Catherine Keener) abandons him, taking her own work literally in the opposite direction — with portraiture so small it requires magnifying glasses to be seen — and taking their daughter (Sadie Goldstein) and a female lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) away to Germany, the movie only pretends to entertain the idea that his puerile self-involvement actually might have let her down. After all, there’s still that starry-eyed, sycophantic actress (Michelle Williams) telling him, of his opus-in-progress, “It’s brilliant. It’s everything. It’s Karamazov.” Yes, there really are young actresses who say things like that — and here Kaufman is, giving them permission never to read Dostoevsky’s book as long as they admire films by men who can name-check it solicitously.
The movie has other layers of complexity (not least its precociously punning but actually kind of stupid title), but elaborating them feels like enabling Kaufman’s passive-aggressive tendency to bully his audiences into thinking the reason they don’t get it is because they’re not smart enough. If you want to be mad at Apatow and Smith, blame them for making movies so lowbrow that something like this can pass for highbrow.
But if Synecdoche, New York makes you think of the magic-act showmanship of Welles, the circus ring mastery of Fellini, the ruthlessly surreal social-critique of Buñuel, or the nightmarish allure of David Lynch…well, maybe you should man up, admit your wistful nostalgia, and resign to the fact that by comparison to those enduring artists, Kaufman seems like a callow solipsist.