Synecdoche, New York may commence with the drab realism of an Arthur Miller play – such as, say, Death of a Salesman, the production being staged by perpetually glum regional-theater playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – but since this is the directorial debut of mad genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the film soon reveals its true nature as a vortex of meta-psychoanalysis that extends outward from its mopey Kaufman-proxy protagonist to encapsulate humanity at large. An exhilarating authorial confession of loneliness, regret, misery, fear of death and illness, self-doubt, time, space and all other concerns under the moon and stars, it’s the story of man wracked by external pustules and internal maladies. Limited its aims most certainly are not, a sad-sack fictionalized profile that takes a leap down the rabbit hole and morphs – like all of Kaufman’s scripts, a point articulated by Caden’s early, knowing question, “Why do I always make it so complicated?” – into a morosely self-aware funhouse of foibles, hang-ups and the (potentially futile) search for comprehension of one’s inherently twisted, contradictory nature through artistic invention.
Obsessed with decay (his own, his career’s, his marriage’s), hypochondriac Caden is left by his successful painter wife Adele (a physically and emotionally disheveled Catherine Keener), who absconds to Berlin with their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). This abandonment is, for the always glass-half-empty Caden, both a case of worst fears realized and self-fulfilling prophecy. And almost instantaneously, it instigates a descent into chronology-obliterating solipsistic madness in which Caden – the beneficiary of a financially lucrative MacArthur grant – rents a zeppelin-sized warehouse and, while Adele is away (for a week? A year?) begins staging a play about his life that grows into a play about everyone’s life, with the set itself expanding into a miniature metropolis whose buildings and people are constantly being fictionally duplicated. Starting with Sammy (the great Tom Noonan), a man who’s been stalking Caden and is then hired to play him in the show, doppelgängers (and doppelgängers of doppelgängers) soon proliferate, as do edifices, with warehouses built within warehouses and Caden’s real-life abodes reconstructed as performance venues, a spiraling sequence of repetitions akin to the infinite doubling effect produced when two mirrors face each other.
It’s Kaufman’s uncompromisingly dreary 8 ½, replete with a bevy of romantic interests led by a box office clerk who lives in a perpetually on-fire house (the winningly flirty Samantha Morton), a fetching, smitten leading lady (Michelle Williams) as well as, in the film’s typically head-spinning circular fashion, the actresses hired to play those women. Scored to Jon Brion’s agonizingly tender musical theme, which exudes desolate melancholy over things (love, bodies, opportunities) destroyed by time, Synecdoche, New York – its titular locale’s name a reference to a thing that stands in for a larger whole – is a magnificently sprawling puzzle of a Kaufman self-portrait, an uninhibited navel-gazing work of relentless wry glumness. Yet if the film’s general absence of tonal modulation and oppressively bleak aesthetic underscore how responsible Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) were for providing prior Kaufman efforts with their light, effervescent touches, its dour, intricate struggle with issues of identity, art, and personal/professional satisfaction nonetheless feels like the “brutal truth” Caden is striving for through his own burgeoning, comprehensive opus.
The same holds true for Hoffman’s performance, a one-note expression of miasmatic neurosis that begins as a fairly conventional fictional conceit, but eventually locates an honesty – about lack of certainty, about confused desire, about the enlivening and deadening consequences of everyday and artistic narcissism – that’s acutely raw and severe. Synecdoche, New York may be epitomized by an early scene of Caden intently investigating his own bloody stool, a gaze into an ugly abyss of anxieties and phobias, and it’s unabashedly indulgent narrative ultimately leads to nothing less than a (somehow simultaneously literal and figurative) apocalypse that’s still not enough to quell its protagonist’s desire for creative self-analytic reinvention. Yet Kaufman’s meta-meta mind-boggler is, ultimately, far more heady and haunting than maddeningly egocentric, typified by an elderly Caden’s conversation with a dying, adult Olive (Robin Weigert), during which her demand that he admit to a phony homosexual affair lands with an overly scripted thud that’s redeemed, with piercing poignancy, by the subsequently mournful image of one of her flower tattoos falling, withered, from her lifeless arm.