Commentary: 'Synecdoche' could improve with edit

Hypnotic film may undergo further cuts...

The original cut of Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut "Synecdoche, New York" was just more than four hours long, and after his two-hour, four-minute version was unveiled at the Festival de Cannes to a five-minute standing ovation, a viewer could understand why.

The hypnotic film covers about 40 years in the life of a troubled theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has moonlighted as a theater director off the screen) staging a play within a play within a city within a warehouse within a warehouse. It is best approached not as a conventional film but as a dream, with all the strange tangents and incongruous moments that implies.

Kaufman's screenplays always have played by their own rules, often channeling bizarre ideas into quirky, funny fantasies and character studies. But none has been quite like "Synecdoche," which begins as a fast-cut, straight narrative before jumping the rails and unmooring its audience. It's more ambitious and far more dramatic than Kaufman's previous scripts.

When a palpably shy Kaufman accompanied his film to the festival, it was suggested to him that it might be better suited for review by a psychiatrist specializing in Freudian dream analysis than the usual critics. He replied with a smile, "Yes, that would help me out a lot."

Potential distributors circling the film were concerned about its length, especially the fragmented, inscrutable, increasingly fast-paced segments near its conclusion. In fact, those sequences could potentially be slotted any number of ways, replaced with cut scenes or even excised without affecting the film's overall impact. A narrative thread doesn't exist after a certain point in the movie, anyway.

Kaufman explained that after the film was cut to three hours, there was more than one version he assembled with different scenes to whittle it to its 124-minute length. And despite his reputation for an uncompromising vision, he said he'd be amenable to further editing depending on which distributor picks up the film for North America.

For despite his artistic goals, commercial dictates can't be ignored. Producer Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (which has undergone a reorganization after recent layoffs) needs to justify the film's budget, said to be not far above $20 million but rumored to have cost more.

Kimmel, along with fellow producers and longtime Kaufman collaborators Anthony Bregman and (originally slated director) Spike Jonze, deserve kudos for shepherding this uncompromising vision to life. But it likely will pose a unique marketing challenge, even for the pit bull tenacity of Bingham Ray, who handles marketing for SKE films.

Any feature that dares to run more than two hours risks provoking reflexive groans from audiences and even most critics. Even if the content justifies it -- as it did in spades in Paul Thomas Anderson's 158-minute masterpiece "There Will Be Blood" -- a film's length has become all too important an issue among audiences with shrinking attention spans.

In the case of "Synecdoche," however, less might ultimately be more since it plays like an intense and inscrutable dream. Kaufman could further distill its best scenes to evoke the experience he wants to convey, as if downloading the film from his own idiosyncratic brain. And at some point, on DVD or in an art house run down the road, he could present one of his three- or four-hour cuts, giving an even more personal view into his fascinating mind.