Time clearly isn't on the side of regional theater director Caden Cotard (a typically excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman), the obvious Kaufman surrogate who, in the opening scene, wakes up on the first day of fall only to hear a poetry professor pontificating on the radio about the season's symbolic value as "the beginning of the end." Pay close attention to things like newspaper headlines and the expiration dates on milk cartons and you'll notice that, by the time Caden sits down to a chaotic family breakfast with his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and daughter Olive, nearly two months seem to have elapsed. If it's true that, on the calendar of the universe, mankind doesn't show up until sometime around 11 p.m. December 31, Caden Cotard is a man gripped by the sensation that, any moment now, he will hear the chimes of midnight. Little wonder, then, that he's cast his latest production, a revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, with actors in their 20s and 30s — the tragedy, he tells them, comes from the fact that they too will someday be old.
So deeply self-absorbed is Caden that he scarcely notices that his own marriage is fraying at the seams until Adele absconds to Germany with Olive and a chain-smoking lesbian friend (hilariously played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pursue her art career while Caden finds solace in the arms of his younger leading lady (Michelle Williams). But the real turning point comes when Caden receives one of the MacArthur Foundation's $500,000 "genius grants" and rents a cavernous New York City warehouse to stage his magnum opus — a play about "everything," modeled on his own life and the world around him.
There's no script per se — only scraps of paper handed to actors, scribbled with motivations like "you lost your job today" and "you were raped last night." Eventually, Caden even casts an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself directing the play, who in turn (being a director, after all) casts yet another actor to play himself. In the name of yet more "brutal truth," the sets are given literal fourth walls, and before all is said and done, there's a warehouse inside the warehouse inside... well, you get the idea. At one point, it's revealed that Caden's literal living theater has been rehearsing without an audience for nearly two decades. Yet, the truth, as is its way, remains just out of reach.
Watching Synecdoche, New York, you get the feeling that you're experiencing Kaufman at 200 proof, with no Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry to serve as a sieve for the fulminations of his hyperactive imagination. Given creative carte blanche, he seems to have crammed every idea he's ever had about life, art, and that enigma whose name is woman into a single, totemic work — his 8 1/2, his All That Jazz. He's willing to try anything, like giving the ditzy box-office girl (Samantha Morton), who fears "dying in the fire," a house perpetually ablaze with orange flame. That makes for a sometimes-unruly affair but one that's as audacious as anything I've seen on a movie screen this year.
Time is only one of several abiding obsessions here. Hypochondria dominates the early scenes — complete with recurring close-ups of bowel movements — as does an indulgence of homophonous wordplay. Even Kaufman's daunting title is a verbal pun, at once conjuring up the theatrical world that comes to stand in for Caden's reality and the sound-alike Hudson Valley town where the first part of the movie is set.
In Cannes, where Synecdoche, New York premiered in May to a chorus of mostly withering reviews, many found these intellectual parlor games tedious to the point of exhaustion and branded Kaufman himself something of a surrealist one-trick pony. That last accusation may be valid, but the trick — and the intensity with which Kaufman's actors devote themselves to it — is still dazzling. Like most of Kaufman's work as a writer, Synecdoche, New York is a head trip that time and again returns to a place of real human emotion — in this case, to the idea that, no matter how brilliant we may be or think we are, we're all looking for a little guidance (or, yes, direction) in life.
When I interviewed Kaufman several years ago after the release of Eternal Sunshine, he spoke candidly about the fact that he felt he had run dry of ideas and didn't know where he would go from there. That was also around the time he was said to be writing an original horror screenplay for Jonze, and Synecdoche, New York is the movie that reportedly materialized out of that process. The result is a horror show, all right, albeit one in which the bogeymen are the twin specters of physical and creative death, with Kaufman trying to sort out which of the two is preferable to the other. So it's only fitting that Synecdoche, New York ends not with a fade to black but rather to white — the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps, or that far more terrifying prospect of the blank page and its infinite possibilities.