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Through the looking glass

Charlie Kaufman's mind-bending directorial debut is both big and clever

Charlie Kaufman is a rarity among screenwriters, having explored the same preoccupations (the dissolution of identity, the comforts and cruelty of storytelling) in a number of scripts realised by different directors, not one of whom has compromised his authorial identity.

Only the most venerated auteur enjoys the kind of freedom Kaufman has had since setting out his stall in the pop-culture hall of mirrors a decade ago with Being John Malkovich. No wonder his debut as a director, staggeringly inventive though it is, feels less like the arrival of a bold voice than the continuation of a monologue, albeit one delivered by a madman.

One of the new film’s running jokes concerns the gnomic, off-putting titles that the theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suggests for his latest opus. That’s rich coming from a movie called Synecdoche, New York.

Cinemagoers will need to choose between rehearsing phonetically the title (“Sih-neck-doh-kee”) before approaching the ticket desk, or chickening out and asking for one adult for screen two, please.

Synecdoche means a whole that represents the part (“the law”, say, standing in for “the police”), or vice versa. But you knew that. The noun also chimes with the town of Schenectady, New York, where the morbid, visibly decaying Caden lives with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their daughter.

Notice is served that this will be a work of puns and echoes, doublings and treblings.

Caden becomes involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a sprightly box-office assistant. In a Buñuelian touch, Hazel lives in a house that is permanently on fire. She informs the estate agent, who is showing her around the smoke-fogged rooms, that she is concerned about perishing in the blaze. The woman concedes that, yes, it is rather a worry.

The scene is less startling for its surrealism than for its brief departure from Caden’s point of view. Perhaps it’s some kind of tenuous joke that the only scene which permits us any breathing space beyond his suffocatingly neurotic perspective is one in which Hazel courts death from smoke inhalation.

When Caden receives a MacArthur grant, which drops into his life as randomly as the various ailments (pustules, seizures, impotence) that afflict him, he decides to create a work that is “big and true and tough.” We may deduce he’s not talking about Rent.

He uses the money to mount a detailed version of his own life, staged on a set of New York built to scale inside a colossal warehouse. As Adele, who has by now deserted him, starts producing canvasses tinier than postage stamps, Caden’s play expands until there are warehouses within warehouses, populated by thousands of performers, each improvising on the basis of scribbled notes their director gives them.

A production first modelled on reality comes eventually to overwhelm and replace it.

Caden begins recasting his own life: Sammy (Tom Noonan), who has been stalking him for two decades, announces himself the ideal candidate to play Caden. Then Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel, arrives in a scene to tell Sammy/Caden that the actress playing Hazel has arrived.

Somewhere, you feel, Pirandello is complaining of a migraine.

Each of the performers imitating real people requires someone to “play” them in turn, until everyone is following everyone else around, scribbling observations about one another into a notebook. When Sammy takes an interest in the actual Hazel, rather than Tammy, you fear a rupture in the art/life continuum, much as when John Malkovich was stranded in a world peopled exclusively by Malkoviches.

Only the cast’s sagging skin and greying hair alert us to how long all this is taking. Performers often favour extensive rehearsal periods, but even that fondness is tested by Caden’s methods. “When are we going to get an audience in here?” asks one of his actors. “It’s been 17 years.”

Of course, there is never going to be any audience. Caden’s mantra is: “I know how to do this play now.” He’s still saying it when the movie ends.

But life, Kaufman tells us with a starkness that precludes whimsy, is a rehearsal for an opening night that will never arrive. Or rather, when it does come, the show is over anyway.

The reviews, be they raves or slams, always appear too late, and in the obituary section rather than on the arts pages.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom