Can you pronounce ’Synecdoche’?

Just got back from a late dinner with a gang of journalists at La Pizza, which has always been Roger Ebert’s favorite restaurant in Cannes. Roger, sadly, isn’t here this year. He’s been in the hospital again. But his wife Chas is serving as his eyes and ears. At La Pizza, lots of vintage Cannes tales were zipping around the table. Glen Kenny, who’s just been axed from Premiere—the latest in a series of U.S. film critics to see their jobs deemed redundant—regaled us with a Cannes moment years ago, when he found himself overhearing a conversation between Nick Nolte and Terry Gilliam. Nolte was going into lurid detail about how he had to get a testicle-tuck, because his balls were so out of line he kept sitting on them. . Jay Stone of CanWest News Service had his own Nolte sighting just a few days ago. Nolte had slipped into the lobby of his apartment to have a smoke. Usually it’s the the other way around—you go out for a smoke. But Nolte isn’t what you’d call normal.

Speaking of not normal, we saw Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York at 8:30 a.m. today, which is a strange and violent thing to do to your brain first thing in the morning before coffee. The movie begins with a radio alarm clock, the second in the competition to do so. As the protagonist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) groggily hauls himself out of bed, to his consternation the morning radio jocks segue into a deep discussion about German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’, the first of a zillion incongrous things that throws him, and us, for a loop as his life’s complications mount at a geometric rate.

This is Kaufman’s feature directing debut, but he has firmly established his signature as a screenwriter who has turned his mind into a metaphysical fun fair with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This movie is akin to Kaufman’s previous vehicle, but with no breaks. The first half hour is very funny. Then the movie starts slipping into serious angst, and never makes it back.

It is hugely complicated: a play within a play within a play within a film. At least. Hoffman’s character, endowed with a $1 million MacArthur genius grant erects, erect a vast theatrical project in a warehouse that will take a lifetime to complete. In Kaufman’s Chinese-box scenario, many of the characters have actors who play them. There are actors playing actors who play actors. Meanwhile Hoffman’s character suffers a carnival of strange medical ailments, from non-dilating pupils to unresponsive salivary glands. We’re all hurtling towards death,” he says. Llke Woody Allen, but Woody Allen on acid. In a permanent state existential emergency. Or early Tom Stoppard, who was probably already on acid.

Which may sound like a recommendation. And who knows? This is a film that deserves a second viewing. Hoffman’s amazing (as always), and he’s surrounded by a brilliant troupe of women, including Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Weist, Emily Mortimer and Samantha Morton.

I don’t know about you, but I always get Emily Mortimer and Samantha Morton mixed up. Or is it Emily Morton and Samantha Mortimer? They’re like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of English film actresses, speaking of Tom Stoppard. So it seems only natural that one should be portraying the other in Kaufman’s cinematic hall of mirrors. And at the press conference for Synecdoche, New York, I was gratified to hear, from Morton herself, that mixing her up with Mortimer is a common mistake. One that she finds flattering, quite happy to take credit for Mortimer’s performance in Breaking the Waves.

Someone at the press conference compard Kaufman’s film to Fellini’s 8 1/2 (sorry, don’t know how to do fractions on this keyboard). Kaufman confessed, “I have never seen 8 1/2, but from what I’m told it’s about a director who builds something big.”