Most films are optimistic. As a medium, the movies have always been good at celebrating, whether it’s winning the war, beating the aliens or getting the girl. The idea at the heart of Hollywood has always been “triumph over adversity”: how could it not be, in an industry founded by immigrants, which rose to dominance in the Depression (or, as we now call it, the First Depression)? Even when they’re treating darker topics, films have generally sought out the light in the darkness. They’re about the nobility of sacrifice, the criminal’s redemption, or the discovery of meaning in death — the phrase “life-affirming” on a poster is pretty much a guarantee that the lead character will die. As Stanley Kubrick said about Schindler’s List, “That wasn’t about the Holocaust. That was about success … The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.”
And then there’s Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has written some of the most original films of the past decade, including Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His work is full of paradoxes: these are beautifully structured films that appear to reject structure; comedies that are stuffed with pain; love stories sodden with rejection and despair. And they are Hollywood movies, with Hollywood money and Hollywood stars, that seem to reject everything that Hollywood’s about: this is having your cake, eating it, then making yourself sick.
Now he has a new film, Synecdoche, New York, which opens this month after screening at the London Film Festival last year. It’s his first film as a director, and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theatre director who is given a grant to stage the production of his dreams; a production that turns out to be a full-size reconstruction of his life inside a full-size reconstruction of New York.
It’s all there in the name, of course. Cotard’s Syndrome is a disorder in which the victim believes that they are dead or dying. As he embarks on his great project, Cotard’s life and work become one, endlessly reflecting and refracting one another as he tries to find some meaning in them both. Woody Allen famously said that, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying”. Caden’s so busy hunting immortality that he somehow forgets how to live. In a recent Guardian interview Kaufman explained his ambition for the film: “I was trying to present a life, with its moments of nothing … There is something that happens to people when they get old, which is that they get sidelined. There isn’t a big, dramatic crescendo and then their life is over. They’re forced out of their work, the people in their lives die, they lose their place in the world, people don’t take them seriously, and then they just continue to live. And what is that? What does that feel like? I wanted to try to be truthful about that and express something about what I think is a really sad human condition.”
Which is not, needless to say, what it says on the poster.
Synecdoche has some terrific performances, particularly from the women in his life. Kaufman may not play to all the rules of Hollywood, but he certainly surrounds his shambling, peeling, overweight hero with some implausibly beautiful girlfriends, including Samantha Morton, Emily Watson and Michelle Williams, whose strength and sweetness light the movie: she’d be terrific in Saint Joan. It also has moments of extraordinary beauty, and some lovely running gags (Samantha Morton gets a good deal on the flat she buys because it’s on fire, and remains so for the rest of the movie). But it’s emotionally monotonous: it starts unhappy, stays unhappy, ends unhappy. And I think that Philip Seymour Hoffman is miscast, not because it’s not a fine performance, but because it’s the fine performance you’d expect. Hoffman as a depressive, degenerating obsessive? That’s like casting a dolphin as Flipper. Imagine Tom Cruise in the role, or maybe Robert Downey Jr: someone who bounces in at the beginning, full of cockiness and charm, then crumbles as life catches up with him, time just eating him away. There’s an odd sense of over-concentration, too: it’s like Philip Seymour Hoffman x Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Charlie Kaufman x Charlie Kaufman. Sometimes talent shines more when it’s diluted: some of the films we think of as the most Woody Allen of Woody Allen, for example (Manhattan, Annie Hall) are those that he co-wrote with other people. It may be that Charlie Kaufman needs Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry as the dash of martini in the gin.
Overall, Synecdoche is a pretty harrowing experience: despite its comic touches it’s a film suffused with sickness, both spiritual and physical, as Cotard struggles to complete his epic before his life runs out. And Kaufman lacks the clarity and rigour that makes Ingmar Bergman’s work exhilarating even at its bleakest. But nonetheless this is a remarkable film: a brave and intimate epic that confronts the shadows beyond the eternal sunshine of the movies.