It's easy to get lost in Charlie Kaufman's world. With only a handful of films, he has in less than a decade defined a sensibility as unique as it is hermetic. Outsiders, like the makers of the tepid Adaptation rewrite, Stranger Than Fiction, have tried to trespass on Kaufman's turf, but he holds the only set of keys to his kingdom.
With Synecdoche, New York, his first film as a director, Kaufman explores the outer edges of his universe, the point where it curves back onto itself and the laws of space and time no longer apply. The movie's hero ' or, more accurately, its patsy ' is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director whose latest work is a production of The Death of a Salesman cast with young actors. The idea of staging Arthur Miller's classic of midlife desperation with a cast barely into their 20s is an indicator of Caden's depressive mental state, but it's also a kind of conceptual pun on the reversals that characterize Kaufman's movies: a reference to his own self-referentiality.
With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, movies made from Kaufman's scripts have suffered from a certain airlessness. They plunge deeper and deeper into a world with no center. Synecdoche, which takes its name from a literary device in which a part is substituted for the whole, takes that centerlessness as its theme. It's about an artist getting lost inside his work, creating a world so large that it consumes him.
Aware of his penchant for decrepit protagonists, Kaufman raises the stakes by making Caden an encyclopedia of physical and emotional decay. Abandoned by his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and their daughter, Caden begins to develop a long string of ailments real and imagined. Strange protuberances appear under his skin, and his urine turns the color of Coke. He can hardly swallow food. Even among Hoffman's catalog of miserable sons of bitches, Caden is an exceptionally sad sack.
With no life to speak of, Caden throws himself into his work. Inside a cavernous, glass-ceilinged warehouse in New York City, he starts to restage scenes from his life: his unhappy second marriage to a starry-eyed actress (Michelle Williams), his fruitless sessions with a self-help huckster (Hope Davis) and, above all, his tangled and fitful love affair with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a quiet, sad-faced women who becomes the stage manager for his ever-expanding production.
Caden's project grows over the years, although it's impossible to know how many, since Kaufman scrambles any sense of time. Shots of newspaper headlines and clocks only serve to confuse matters. The characters grow older, but not at a fixed rate. There is no way to know where we are. As Caden's self-created universe expands, it begins to replicate itself in miniature. Caden and Hazel bring in actors to play versions of themselves, who cast their own surrogates in turn. Another warehouse appears within the first, and another within that. Eventually Caden becomes superfluous, a vestigial god dwarfed by his own creation.
Synecdoche, New York overflows with eccentric ideas, only some of which bear fruit. The fact that Adele is a painter of canvases so small they can be seen only with a jeweler's loupe offsets Caden's turn toward maximalism, but the flames that rage inside Hazel's apartment seem no more than a surrealist fillip, the kind of thing a director might have weeded out of a writer's script were they not one and the same.
Caden calls his untitled life's work 'a play about everything.â?� Synecdoche, New York is a shade less ambitious, but no less all-encompassing, an aggressively bewildering conceptual sprawl that defies easy, and perhaps any, explanation. It sucks in the world like a black hole, letting nothing emerge. Its center is dense, but its pull is irresistible.