Say what you will about Charlie Kaufman and his well-worn metanarratives, but the man writes a mighty fine nervous breakdown. In "Synecdoche, NY," the audience is spared no scatalogical or medical unpleasantry--from bloody urine in a basement sink to erupting pustules to a bloated Philip Seymour Hoffman matter-of-factly trying to get a sample of his own feces for his doctor. Compare this to the fey Franny-and-Zooey-esque nervous breakdowns of a director such as Wes Anderson, in which attractive, but neurotic, twentysomethings banish themselves to posh, beautifully appointed Parisian hotels or lock themselves in the family bathroom to take hot baths and smoke cigarettes. Where Kaufman reveals the bile and existential horror of falling apart, Anderson gives us the comfort, if not the luxuries, of feeling sad. And feeling sad sometimes is not a breakdown. It's called being alive.
"Synecdoche" takes us through the downward meta-spiral of a meta-mindfuck that has now become Kaufman's trademark. This time, however, our protagonist actually has a successful career. So successful, in fact, that, halfway through the film, theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) finds out in a letter that he has won a MacArthur Genuis Grant (don't they call you for big awards like that?). But, the seams in Caden's personal life have frayed irreparably: his wife, Adele Lack (I strongly suspect that Kaufman got this name from a piece of IKEA furniture, which, incidentally, I own), who paints miniature nudes, confesses during a marriage counseling session that she sometimes fantasizes that Caden has died, so she can start all over, without guilt. "Does this make you feel terrible?" the ubercheerful blonde therapist, played brilliantly by Hope Davis, asks Caden. "Yes," Caden replies. "Good," the therapist responds. Not long after, Adele leaves Caden for a show in Berlin, with their young daughter, Olive, never to return again.
The only bright light in this disaster is Hazel, the buxom box-office girl who has had a longtime crush on Caden, played by Samantha Morton. As testament to Hazel's imperviousness, she lives in a house that is continually on fire, but never burns down. When Caden begins rehearsal on his mega-theater production, which, in effect, involves an entire city of characters and a city within New York City for its stage, he hires Hazel as his assistant. Caden's problem, however, is that he is continually re-staging and directing every moment of his life, as it happens, so that the play itself never takes place. At one point, one of his actors remarks that they have been rehearsing for seventeen years.
As with "Eternal Sunshine," "Synecdoche" starts out in the realm of narrative realism, but soon descends into the messily surreal and dream-like realm of interiority. The linearity of time is replaced by the subjective sequencing of dreams, and we as an audience never quite know where we are--Caden's nightmares, New York, Berlin, actual time, or actual space. After a while, it doesn't seem to matter to us, and one gets the feeling that it never mattered to Kaufman. Before we and Caden know it, Olive is an adult and, worse, every father's greatest fear: a stripper. Caden finds that his presents (a large pink cardboard "nose") have never reached her, Adele's nefarious pot-buddy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, has become her lover, and she is tattooed, broken, and dying in a German hospital. Like her mother, Olive inexplicably detests Caden and cannot forgive him for trespasses he never even committed, even upon her deathbed.
Kaufman's heterosexual relationships have a pattern: Dominant, high-spirited, artistic women wreaking havoc on their weak-willed, introverted, artistic men. In "Eternal Sunshine," Kate Winslet's character, Clementine, tries to erase Jim Carrey's Joel from her memory altogether--the ultimate "fuck you." In "Being John Malkovich," John Cusack is threatened by the sexual relationship that ensues between Maxine (Catherine Keener) and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Caden is no different. His universe, with the exception of the actor he hires to play himself, is entirely made up of women. After his wife leaves him, he marries his longtime actress Claire (Michelle Williams), and together, they have another daughter. But, again, the relationship sours, and Caden loses yet another family of women.
The last half hour of the movie descends into a maelstrom of tears and self-pity and apocalypse. Kaufman seems to throw up his hands at his own mess, after constructing so many plot points and meta-plot points that he himself can no longer keep track of what's happening, and after so many women have screwed him over and left him to eat his own heart. When Caden's doppelganger kills himself, Kaufman seems to have tied his hands: Should Caden kill himself now too? What comes next when your script begins to write your reality? If Caden too killed himself, wouldn't that bring us back to zero?
So Caden doesn't kill himself. Instead, he drives. He drives through the ruins of his play, the ruins of his life. And what does he find at the end of it? A woman. She's comforting. But they always start out comforting, don't they?
Life is cruel, but women are crueler. Or so it seems to Kaufman, because they are the only ones he can turn to for total solace, and yet, they are also the people who do him the most harm. In Kaufman's world, it is women who wield sex as power, and men who submit to their will out of sheer weakness and base lust. Perhaps this is why Caden breaks into sobs every time he's on the cusp of coitus. Women's bodies hold the monopoly on consolation; men's bodies merely fit into them. Women create--not only life, but also art; when Caden tries to create art, the result is merely a repetition of life. He can stage it as enormously as he wants, but, by the end of the script, it is still just rote replication.