‘Synecdoche’ is a word I don’t think I’ve ever heard out loud – and it’s not actually used in Charlie Kaufman’s film – but the press release claims it’s pronounced ‘sih-NECK-doh-kee’ to sort of rhyme with Schenechtady, a town in upstate New York. A synecdoche is a figure of speech whereby a whole is used to represent a part or a part is used to represent the whole – saying you called ‘the police’ is a synecdoche, since you only rang up a duty officer of one specific police force rather than invoked the abstract notion of law enforcement. What this means in relation to the film is a subject for further debate – though it’s at least nice that Kaufman has expanded the general vocabulary to include this useful concept, since everyone uses synecdoches every day and few even consider them as verbal shorthand or frill along the lines of metaphor or euphemism.
It opens with the particular: the life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director working way out of town (‘town’ is a synecdoche for New York) in Schenechtady, currently prepping a revival of Death of a Salesman in which the Lomans are played by young actors, so absorbed in his own minor (eventually major) ailments and quirks he doesn’t quite notice his artist wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) struggling to get away from him, doting on his four-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein), the object of a crush from kooky ticket-seller Hazel (Samantha Morton), in therapy with chic witch Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) who wants to push her self-help best-sellers and victim of a burst tap, boils, medical problems enough for a neurologist and an unrologist (homonyms) and a world of hurt waiting in the wings.
There are surreal touches from the first – Olive is worried about the colour of her poop, which is bright green, and Hazel buys a house which is always in the process of burning down (the vendors hope for a fast sale, deadpans the realtor). At some tipping point, the film speeds up and starts skipping through events – suggesting that burst tap gave Cotard a brain injury which is editing his subjective reality, in the manner of the many ‘rubber reality’ films of recent years (The I Inside, The Jacket), or is unstuck in time like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim (some stretches of the film feel like the contemporary sections of Slaughterhouse 5) but only in one direction. Adele heads off to Berlin with Olive, to organise an exhibition of her tiny artworks (optical equipment is needed to paint or view them) without Caden but with her intriguingly malign best friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s quickly years later, and Caden goes through a botched miss of a relationship with Hazel before remarrying and having another daughter with actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams). He also wins a McArthur Genius Grant (the scene where his shrink learns this allows Davis to deliver a masterly demonstration of sexy, seething, unnoticed envy) which gives him unlimited funds to stage a huge theatre production, decades in the making and rehearsing, based on his own life – while he and an entourage work on this in a vast, vaulted space, the world outside turns into a dystopian hell barely glimpsed on the margins.
More complications ensue, many exquisitely, comically agonising: Olive grows up (Robin Weigert) to believe her father abandoned her and dies refusing to forgive him for things he didn’t do, poisoned by the all-over tattoos Maria inflicted on her as part of another lifelong art project carried out at the expense of the subject; Caden hires a stalker named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), who has been inexplicably shadowing him for twenty years, to play ‘Caden’, and the overlap of life and art drives Claire to quit for another gig (‘we need to replace Claire’ is the pragmatic stage manager’s reaction) while Caden needs to bring in actress Tammy (Emily Watson) to play Hazel and proceeds to have an affair with her after his mother’s funeral (in his boyhood home, still bloodied from his mother’s murder) which ticks off Hazel, who remains paradoxically devoted to him; and he somehow takes the place of Adele’s cleaning woman and daily scrubs his ex-wife’s flat, without ever meeting her again (apart from a flashback glimpse, Keener is long gone), but hires actress Millicent Weems (Dianne Weist) to play the cleaning woman he’s impersonating so the play misrepresents his life, until he switches jobs with her and winds up a bit-player in the eventual one-time-only performance which Millicent directs better than he could by infusing his life with slightly more life than he did in living it.
There are other layers, too. In his scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman has developed his own manner of storytelling, the fusion of the personal with the bizarre, the specific and the general (someone must have mentioned that synedoche is his habitual form of expression); this is a more ‘difficult’ film than those, because it doesn’t give the key that solves the puzzle of the structure, making this closer in approach to the vaguer, inexplicable tone of David Lynch, though he directs in a more down-to-earth manner, so that the film often looks like a regular movie even as it is being straight-faced insane (Pinter is namechecked early, but absurdists like Ionesco or N.J. Simpson could get a look-in). Despite swaddles of make-up as their characters age, the cast are all extraordinary – objectively, Caden Codart is a repellant, self-involved, whining schmuck (even his stalker is driven to suicide) and the universality of his fears about loneliness and dying doesn’t excuse the indulgent manner in which he expresses them, but Hoffman crawls inside and makes this more than an exercise in masochist self-flagellation (in Adaptation., Kaufman wrote himself as a similar type).
An array of almost exclusively female supporting characters is a constant delight, though most of the women in Caden’s life are appalling – even the well-intentioned ones wreak havoc. Kaufman does mind-warping fantasy, but his film really bites in the tiny, truthful moments: Maria applauding Caden’s first night, but not standing up when the audience does; Hazel sobbing in the car after the end of her semi-consummated sort-of fling, then years later making a casual reference to this as an important issue in the play (‘why was I crying?’) though Caden wasn’t there to see her; the inspired casting of Samantha Morton and Emily Watson as doppelgangers (‘I don’t think she looks like me’). This isn’t as accessible as, say, Eternal Sunshine – and I’m still not sure Caden Cotard the character is worth all the effort of fully coming to grips with the movie, but like Cotard’s peculiar, years-in-the-making play it is an insanely ambitious work. He also has David Cronenberg’s knack of devising unique, memorable character names.