Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
By some cosmic whim of the calendar, Seattle’s lone advance screening for W., held on a Tuesday night the week the movie opened, abutted against an early Wednesday morning press screening for Synecdoche, New York, a scheduling double-whammy that seemingly merited this lede: Go to bed with Oliver Stone’s nightmare, wake up with Charlie Kaufman’s.
Only, to my immense surprise, Kaufman’s new film more closely resembles a dream-state. Synecdoche, New York misses being great art (which the endeavor clearly strives/wants to be) by a wide margin, and yet it’s an inescapably haunting, unabashedly romantic picture, a torch song, and a tone poem. The final 20-or-so minute stretch consciously evokes the climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey without ever looking like or nodding to Kubrick’s inventions. But Synecdoche captures the same sense of reverie that attends a journey through which we expect revelation. Now here’s the rub: Kaufman uses this lush romantic sensibility as a sort of amniotic fluid for doom and failure. At the end of the film, the theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has tried—unsuccessfully—for decades to mount an epic performance piece derived from his own life, awakens into a crumbling, rat-infested soundstage hotel room (the opposite of where Keir Dullea ended up) to find his theatre (a dirigible-sized model of New York) deserted. Driving a golf cart through the debris, he spies a woman emerging onto a platform in the distance, and he asks her, “Where is everybody?” The beautiful Deirdre O’Connell, in a brief, low-key, yet powerful performance as an actress/mother figure, answers him, “Mostly dead.” And that, at least to me, speaks to Synecdoche’s ineffable hold on the viewer—it’s a dream about outliving your dreams. It’s the song you never sang, the play you never wrote, the painting, the sculpture you couldn’t finish (or even begin). More than this, much more devastatingly, it’s the woman (or the man) you tenderly loved yet never proposed to.