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The obvious inspiration is Federico Fellini's 8-1/2, in which Guido, a moviemaker with director's block, is beset by memories and fantasies as he dodges all the women in his life, from mother to wife to whore to mistress to muse. Caden has women problems (wife, daughter, mistress, actress); but Synecdoche, bless it, doesn't demean or dismiss any of them except maybe the family shrink (Hope Davis), who tells Caden her new best-selling book can help him, then charges him $45 for a copy. And this artist's problem is not the lack of an idea but his fidelity to it as it grows and grows and splits its seams. It's become a child he can't control, the alien seed he spawned. Any creative person, indeed anyone who's launched some grand project (renovating a home, planting a garden, starting a business), must be familiar with this dread: that the creation has taken on its own life, that it will overwhelm and consume its creator, that the work will never be finished. Caden couldn't bring his magnificent idea to fruition. Kaufman did.
As with 8-1/2 and other challenging films of its time, Synecdoche poses cosmic questions about itself. Are we being shown Caden's imagination or projection of the rest of his life? Is the film fantasy or dread, or is it real? The answer, of course, is that it's a movie, which need only create an alternate world, populate it with memorable characters, and be true to its internal logic, however skewed. Kaufman has constructed a most devious puzzle, a labyrinth of an endangered mind. Yet it's one that thanks in large part to a superb cast, led by Hoffman's unsparing, sympathetic, towering performance should delight viewers who both work the movie out and surrender to its spell.
One big difference between 8-1/2 and other films, like It's a Wonderful Life, where the hero teeters on the precipice of suicide: It doesn't send in the clowns, or dispatch a bumbling angel, But Synecdoche is less forgiving of Caden than 8-1/2 is of Guido. Kaufman says that life is a series of lost chances, of doors closing, until some unseen prompter whispers a final word in your ear: "Die." The apparent bleakness of the film's ending which is the ending we all must face led many observers at Cannes, where the film had its world premiere, to infer that Kaufman's mood was no less morose than Caden's. "At times," wrote a reviewer in the Times of London, "it feels more like a suicide note than a movie." (That wouldn't be a first for this author. His 2005 audio play Hope Leaves the Theater ends with the character Charlie Kaufman committing suicide.)
Well, au contraire, mes amis. For one thing, this is a comedy about despair, as funny as it is bleak, and a complexly woven study of an unraveling soul. Kaufman didn't live (and die) this story, he made it up; and then he directed it, supervising a community of actors and artisans that must have numbered in the hundreds. More important, though, is the effect it should have on a receptive audience. No film with an ambition this large, and achievement this impressive, can be anything but exhilarating, a vital affirmation of the creative process.