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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A life within a play within a film: How Charlie Kaufman created a parallel universe and got lost inside

Published: October 31, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

I’m jealous of Charlie Kaufman. What other writer has the power to pen thoroughly demented stories and receive massive budgets as well as extraordinary actors to bring them to life?

The author of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich has always received surprising support from major studios who’d normally rather produce a star-studded sequel than an artsy, intellectual exploration. He usually does so, however, with other directors like Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze at the helm. For his latest work, entitled Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman finally takes his seat in the director’s chair with predictably unpredictable results.

The film chronicles the life of Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a hapless, frustrated regional theater director whose demise seems to lurk around every corner. After his successful artist wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), abandons him with their daughter to pursue a career in Germany, Cotard’s fragile existence begins to go crumble. As his bodily functions gradually shut down due to some mysterious illness, the struggling director tries to construct a gargantuan theater piece to mimic his real life and network of relationships.

It’s hard not to see Kaufman in Cotard’s character, especially since Kaufman has made a career out of collapsing such distinctions. Cotard inhabits an uncomfortable middle ground between Heidegger’s Being-Unto-Death and the existentially fraught Charlie Brown. The director seems to possess terrible luck as his body deteriorates and his relationships end in abandonment such that by the finale the audience can’t help but exclaim, “good grief!”

A Kaufman film viewer always expects his brain waves to play hopscotch as he navigates intersecting planes of reality, but the heart rarely gets as much consideration. The unbelievable and unbelievably large cast gets credit for lifting the production above intellectual mind games and into the realms of human emotion.

Hoffman deserves a lifetime achievement award for exploring every facet of suffering with grace and compassion in the fictional lifespan of the film’s protagonist. He manages to pull more genuine feeling out of every scene than most actors muster in an entire film.

Samantha Morton, who plays Cotard’s lifetime companion, Hazel, makes a vapid, doting woman seem lovable. And Catherine Keener injects enough humanity into Adele that the otherwise steely artiste seems multidimensional.

The film’s other miracle is the theater set, which acts as Cotard’s mental universe and a collage of New York streets. It manages to display the feebleness of the protagonist’s psyche just as it manifests the resilience of his imagination.

The film’s one major flaw is its dogged insistence on hammering the oppressiveness of mortality into the viewer’s mind. While it’s hard to soft pedal a trope like the inevitability of death, the directors’ (Cotard and his creators) obsession often make the tone feel monochromatic.

In the end it remains the viewer’s challenge to decide what takes place within Cotard’s mind and what is occurring in objective reality. It is this solipsistic murkiness that gives the film intellectual heft.

But no matter what you decide is going on in Cotard’s head, you’ll never forget in whose head the whole labyrinthine world of Synecdoche, New York originated.