“Synecdoche, New York” always promised to require resolute viewing.
The first film directed by Charlie Kaufman — the screenwriter of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Adaptation,” and “Being John Malkovich” — “Synecdoche” returns to his favored themes examining identity, fantasticism and circumvented concepts of time.
The tale of Caden Cotard, a hypochondriac, depressive director at a modest theater company unfolds absorbingly in the beginning, ably buffered by a wonderful performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose hangdog expression and neurotic befuddlement enhance the anxiety he feels for his impending, experimental production of “Death of a Salesman” and withering marriage to a world-famous artist, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener).
The film, though, veers toward tedium as Caden is increasingly more bewildered and more desperate to find meaning and self awareness in his unsettled existence. It becomes redundant once Caden wins a MacArthur Fellowship. The grant funds his obsessive, quixotic quest to make a play about his own life. The division between his actual life and the staged production is removed as he purchases a cavernous theater, builds sets duplicating his homes, and imposes on an ever-increasing cast as the rehearsals pass from weeks to months to years. A shade over two hours, “Synecdoche,” like those rehearsals, becomes wearing. Caden’s self-indulgence begins to feel like Kaufman‘s, or is it vice versa? The film could have been culled by a judicious thirty to forty minutes and would not have rid itself of the vital conundrums.
While the story spirals into tedious narcissism, the cast is phenomenal throughout. Kaufman has gathered a stunning ensemble of actresses who serve as Caden’s inspirations, foils and loves, much like the feminine ensemble surrounding Marcello Mastroianni’s director in Fellini‘s “8 ½.” Samantha Morton brings a warm, sassy confidence to Hazel, the box office ticket lady who becomes his muse. Hope Davis is bespectacled, hair-in-a-bun fun as Caden‘s self-help psychiatrist. Genuine and fetching, Michelle Williams provides a natural emotional quality as his second wife, actress Claire Keen, which suggest that she‘s on the verge of becoming one of America’s most important actors. One looks forward to seeing her in the soon-to-be-released, tiny budgeted “Wendy and Lucy.” Not for the first time this year, Keener seems too well-suited to play the disinterested, sarcastic wife and Jennifer Jason Leigh prowls the screen as her best friend. As actors in Caden’s cast, both Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson are enjoyable presences who could have been augmented with slightly more developed characters. The performances are a welcome superlative in a promising film which becomes a bit of a slog.