Fans, critics split on Kaufman's directorial debut

Sony Pictures Classics

Release date: Oct. 24

Charlie Kaufman’s wry, inventive onscreen explorations of the authentic/inauthentic self — from “Being John Malkovich” through “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — have defied categorization.

The Academy has made Kaufman a three-time nominee (with one win, for “Sunshine”) in the screenplay categories. But the rabbit holes of his deep, funny and emotional directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” have split fans and critics since its debut at Cannes, making Kaufman’s movie one with plenty of Oscar pedigree but a real wait-and-see prospect come nomination time.

Using an almost European film language of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them temporal shifts, avant-garde touches and a melancholy absurdism, Kaufman tells the story of a middle-aged play director named Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) answering his fear of biological decay and personal/artistic failure with an ambitious, self-reflective theater project that, while engaging his focus on life’s elusive meaning, has a tangential tendency to keep him out of reach of what and who matters in it. Citing its surrealistic swirl of brains and heart, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times offered up an impassioned rave, calling it “one of the best films of the year.”

Even detractors acknowledge the boldness of Kaufman’s efforts, and the filmmaker’s bona fides as a screenwriter could easily warrant him a return appearance in that category, even if the movie’s head-scratching qualities keep him out of a director slot. (Then again, surrealism hasn’t stopped David Lynch from the occasional helmer nom.)

Perhaps easier to agree on are the many assured performances in “Synecdoche”: from Oscar winner Hoffman’s haunted, witty turn to reliably acerbic Catherine Keener as Caden’s stifled wife, Michele Williams as a doting young actress, and a revelatory Samantha Morton (a two-time Oscar nominee) as a flirtatious box office secretary. Since nearly everyone ages many years in the film, there’s a chance for the fine makeup work to get recognized, too.

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