Synecdoche, New York (R)
2 stars out of 4
Charlie Kaufman has had six of his screenplays made into movies, has been nominated for three Academy Awards and has received an Oscar. By anyone's measurement, that is an astounding track record. He's unconventional, hyper-literate, darkly comic and more than a little paranoid. There's no denying his talent as a writer. As a director however, Kaufman leaves a lot to be desired. Without the aid of a fresh set of eyes and judicious editing to keep him in check, Kaufman - at least here - comes off as overindulgent and largely incoherent.
For the first 30 minutes, "Synecdoche, New York" is vintage Kaufman and it is excellent. Playwright/stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is receiving rave reviews for his reworking of "Death of a Salesman" but feels as if he's reached a professional dead end. He's written a high-concept, surrealistic play set in New York City, but doesn't nearly have the financing to produce it.
Like manna dropped from the heavens, Caden receives a lucrative artistic grant giving him carte blanche spending for whatever he wants, but he's still unhappy. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) appears as if she's going to leave him and he's coming down with a string of serious physical ailments. He's convinced he's going to die any minute.
This portion of the film is loaded with pointed sarcasm and gallows humor and makes for a nice set-up for an analogy on love and death which suggests a more dangerous and esoteric '70s era Woody Allen.
Adele does leave, taking Caden's daughter with her, robbing him of his only link to stability and the movie itself of any semblance of narrative order. In the space of the next 90 minutes, Kaufman is able to wedge in a handful of comical and/or enlightening moments, but they get lost in a quagmire of pointless navel-gazing.
Caden's physical appearance and mental condition continues to dwindle yet he is still able to garner the amorous affections of no less than three of his very attractive, professional underlings (Emma Watson, Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton) and, even by Woody Allen's geek-gets-the-hot-girl standards, it's an impossible stretch. Humor can overcome physical limitations but can't defeat the quintuple assault of obesity, depression, irritability, imagined terminal illness and - the ultimate deal-breaker - insecurity.
Kaufman's Achilles' Heel comes with the "story within a story" inclusion. The mixing of real life elements and those of the fictional play bleed, blur and pour into each to such a degree, we eventually can't distinguish them. That would be acceptable if either the play or the film reached some kind of closure, but neither does.
Kaufman's talent is undeniable and even "Synecdoche" shows fleeting flashes of brilliance. He needs to stick with just coming up with the ideas and presenting carefully crafted collections of words and scenarios to people who know how to correctly assemble them. Even geniuses need to know their limitations. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Opens exclusively at UA Tara Cinemas, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-634-5661.