Charlie Kaufman Explained

This is lame. I really should not be writing myself into an essay about Charlie Kaufman. Or should I? Kaufman does that sort of thing all the time. In "Adaptation," for instance: before we see Nicolas Cage, his voice-over tells us all we need to know about his self-loathing, creatively frustrated character—whose name is Charlie Kaufman. Does his self-dramatization mean that the way to disentangle his mysteries is through some kind of mimetic first-person device? This would be easier to do if I hadn't spent the previous two days clicking around polling Web sites like a rat pressing a bar for more crack. Now I'm blocked and past deadline. God, this is lame.

But then so is "Synecdoche, New York." OK, it's not that bad. But it is disappointing. Will Kaufman understand that I say that with love? I adore his films—and his legit work. His sound play "Hope Leaves the Theater" wrecked my head so completely three years ago that I started a company to put on sound plays (which are like staged radio plays, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure). So the news that he'd be making his film-directing debut with a story about a theater director gave me high expectations. Well, higher expectations. "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" are the work of one of the most compelling writers in any medium: every Kaufman project is cause for excitement at this point.

The hero of this latest tale is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose health is failing and whose wife (Catherine Keener) is leaving. After winning a MacArthur grant, he takes over a massive warehouse and stages a full-scale replica of his life, which soon consumes him. I'm making this sound too tidy. It's a weird movie, with sudden, unexplained time lapses, a paramour (Samantha Morton) who lives in a house that's always on fire, a diary that Harry Potter-ishly updates itself, and much more along these twisty lines. It also has flashes of typically beautiful Kaufman dialogue (like the chimera speech, which I'll not spoil by quoting) and an absurdly talented cast. Yet even on repeat visits to the film—I know you intend your movies to be seen more than once, Charlie—Caden's 50-year ordeal doesn't develop much emotional weight. Why do some scenes that are supposed to be particularly affecting—as when, toward the end, an actress (Dianne Wiest) takes the reins from the exhausted Caden—feel so uninvolving? A good question. A better question: can the unmistakable echoes of a past master in this film bring us closer to understanding the potency and allure of Kaufman's odd body of work?

The resonances between Charlie Kaufman and Luigi Pirandello are too apt and revealing to miss. In the 1910s and 1920s, the great Sicilian dramatist wrote a series of plays that revolutionized the way modern theater dealt with illusion and reality. Some ties between these writers are minor: both Pirandello and Kaufman inject themselves into their stories, often so other characters can make fun of them. More substantively, both are preoccupied with identity. In "Enrico IV," Pirandello uses the story of a man who fell on his head and thinks himself the emperor of Germany to show how much our daily lives resemble a masquerade, with set roles and costumes. That's echoed in "Synecdoche," as Caden coaches actors to replay scenes from his life, and Hoffman dons more (and increasingly obvious) makeup as the character lurches toward death. The deepest tie between the pessimistic Kaufman and his pessimistic forebear, though, is philosophical. Eric Bentley, Pirandello's translator and champion, said his true subject was "the 20th-century blues": disillusionment with the failure not of a particular movement, but "of humanness itself in our time." Beyond his comic gifts and knack for writing the sharpest dialogue around, Kaufman grabs us because of how eloquently he evokes the loneliness of modern life, the way we find ourselves, say, staying up till 3 a.m., alone, typing on our laptops. I need more caffeine.

Yet if "Synecdoche" represents the prototype of the Kaufman story, with its Pirandellian touches and tricky surprises, his best film is an outlier. And because it's one of the movies I love the most, I'm squeezing it in. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is the sole Kaufman film to date that completely works—that is, in fact, some kind of masterpiece. Joel (Jim Carrey) learns that the girl he's just broken up with (Kate Winslet) has undergone a procedure to have him erased from her memory. He does the same, only to discover, as he relives the memories, that he still loves her. Unlike Kaufman's other stories, this one (dreamily directed by Michel Gondry) doesn't fling its characters centrifugally toward deeper loneliness or death. On the contrary: it shows that love can find a way to triumph over the self-destructive choices we make, even over technology (a very timely touch). It's "The Palm Beach Story" meets "The Matrix." I'd applaud him for quelling the gloom of "Synecdoche" long enough to create a new archetype for 21st-century romance, but that would be a nerdy way to end a column.