The very title Synecdoche, New York is off-putting. Like a genius lunatic wandering the streets, it seems to scream, "I'm weird and difficult! Stay away!" But I say, it's weird and wonderful. Go!
Charlie Kaufman you know as the gifted, mulish, effulgently idiosyncratic screenwriter one of the few non-directors to establish a unique film voice of Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The typical film scribe making his move to the director's chair would pick a modest project, one that doesn't tax his tyro status. But Kaufman's first work as a total auteur is his most daunting project yet: a portrait of a creative mind in artistic and emotional crisis, painted as a vast mural that encompasses 30-plus years, slips from mundane reality into nightmare fantasy, and is set (not counting side trips to Germany) in two New York State river cities 150 miles apart.
The first is Schenectady, the working-class city near Albany where Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director, lives with his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their young daughter Olive (Amy Goldstein). Caden, who's had a critical success staging Death of a Salesman with young actors in the middle-age roles, is himself a premature old man; he hears mortality gargling at him everywhere. In the first scene, he wakes to a radio talk-show report about how the coming of autumn is a harbinger of death; from then on, Caden's life is one long fall. Reading the newspaper, Caden sees a headline about a playwright. "Harold Pinter's dead," he muses aloud. "No, wait, he won the Nobel Prize." He glances at the TV and sees his own animated form as part of a cartoon show, accompanied by the sing-song lyrics: "Then he died / Maybe someone cried / But not his ex-bride."
His ex-bride, Adele, is about to be his ex-wife. Invited to Berlin to mount an exhibition of her paintings, she tells Caden she'd prefer that he stay home; she'll take Olive with her. Soon, it's clear, mother and child are gone for good. That leaves Caden open to the adoring advances of Hazel (Samantha Morton), who runs the box office at his theater. Her attentions hardly distract Caden from his obsessive suspicions of a physical breakdown: a bathroom accident has left him with a scar on his forehead and the skin disease known as sycosis. Before long, even sympathetic viewers will wonder if Caden is suffering from psychosis.
His one great career break he's awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, giving him a few hundred thousand dollars to pursue his theatrical dreams will slowly break him over the rest of his long, increasingly demented life. Caden moves to Manhattan, rents a warehouse and in it constructs a smaller version of the city outside. Hiring a huge cast, he sets out to assemble an epic of ordinariness. His second wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), will be the star; the ever-loyal Hazel is his assistant. A stalker named Sammy (Tom Noonan) has got the job of portraying Caden; "I've been following you for 20 years," he tells the director. "So cast me and see who you really are."
No masterpiece is the work of a moment, but this theater piece is a long time coming decades long, as the performers sink into their roles, live in the warehouse, blur the boundary between acting and living. Caden and Hazel are nearing old age by the time a celebrated actress, Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), joins the ensemble, also playing Caden, who is now seen in women's clothes and hair, looking strangely Millicentish. He gives Hazel a doppelganger (Emily Watson), who's also a magnet for his desperate sexual itch. But none of this gets Caden closer to realizing his project, or even naming it. (One title he toys with: "Infectious Diseases in Cattle.") Ensuring his despair are occasional glimpses of his now-grown daughter. First he spots Olive as a sex-club dancer, nude and tattooed. Later he visits Olive on her hospital deathbed. He stares at the rose that is tattooed on her arm and sees a real petal fall off.
Synecdoche, as you'll remember from seventh grade grammar class, is a figure of speech substituting the part for the whole (using "hands" for "sailors" in "all hands on deck"). Caden's parts, you could say, are irrevocably crumbling into a black hole of depression. Some of the movie's parts may stir confusion in the viewer, but the whole is clear: Caden is losing his spirit, his determination and his mind.