It’s a hallowed ritual of film culture. An artist makes a movie that is so labyrinthine and obscure, such a road map of blind alleys, such a turgid challenge to sit through that it sends most people skulking out of the theater — except, that is, for a cadre of eggheads who hail the work as a visionary achievement. It happened in 1961, with that high-society puzzle obscura Last Year at Marienbad, and in 2006, with David Lynch’s through-the-looking-glass bore Inland Empire. Now Charlie Kaufman, the brain-tickling screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has directed his first movie, Synecdoche, New York (he also wrote it), and yes, it is one of those ”visionary” what-the-hell doozies. Prepare to be told that it’s a masterpiece.
For 45 minutes or so, Kaufman unveils the odd but watchable tale of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director in Schenectady, N.Y., whose life turns darkly surreal. His wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking their daughter, and he develops a degenerative illness as serious as it is vague (pustules, fading eyesight, premature aging). He’s like Woody Allen trapped in a Debbie Downer nightmare. But that’s the fun part. In the second half, Caden stages his life as a play, gathering a cast of actors who merge (sort of) with their roles. As they do, Caden adds more and more layers to his theatrical experiment, until he’s watching himself watch the actors play characters who are observing themselves. Or something. I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: The compulsion to stand outside of one’s life and observe it to this degree isn’t the mechanism of art — it’s the structure of psychosis. D+