"Synecdoche, New York," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's wildly ambitious directorial debut, recalls the Jorge Luis Borges story in which the imperial cartographers make a map of the empire so detailed and true-to-life that it takes on the exact dimensions of the territory and ends up covering it entirely. Jean Baudrillard famously inverted the story to illustrate his idea about the "precession of simulacra," a postmodern condition in which the representation of something comes before the thing it represents, breaking down the distinction between representation and reality completely.
No doubt Kaufman, the brilliant, melancholy and unrepentantly solipsistic mind behind "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Adaptation," had both in mind when he outlined the contours of his sprawling, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking, frustrating, hard-to-follow and achingly, achingly sad movie, which might have just as well have been called "Being Charlie Kaufman" or, better yet, "Being Anybody."
But "Synecdoche, New York" is beautiful, and I don't just mean the title. A synecdoche, for those unversed in the poetic tropes, is a figure of speech by which a part stands in for the whole, or the whole stands in for a part, or the general stands in for the specific, or vice versa. It's a lilting play on the name of the town of Schenectady, N.Y., where the movie's hero, a melancholy regional theater director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), lives with his painter wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), and their 4-year-old daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein). It hints at the artistic and existential obsessions that come to stand in for the life of an unhappy artist who blankets his life with his work, struggles mightily to understand the first by way of the second, and loses an ability to distinguish between the two. And it makes an irrefutable case for the universality of the individual human experience.
Until Adele, who is fed up with Caden's depressive tendencies, announces she's going to her gallery show in Berlin without Caden and with Olive, the movie adheres more or less to the conventions of realism. (There are, however, plenty of clues that this is a fallacy: The radio announcing the first day of fall while the newspaper says it's Halloween, the weekly magazine review that appears on the morning after a play opens, the bizarre TV cartoon featuring an existential hero who looks like Caden, and the plague of ailments that afflict him all at once.) But once Adele and Olive decamp for Germany, any vestige of realism flies out the window. Time collapses. A week later, a year has gone by. The membranes that keep his interior and exterior worlds separate dissolve.
Caden becomes romantically (though platonically) involved with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the flirtatious girl who works at the box office of a theater company where he's mounting an untraditional production of "Death of a Salesman," not long after she buys a house that's permanently on fire. The relationship fails, he wins a MacArthur "genius" grant, moves to New York, rents a warehouse the size of a dirigible hangar and begins to mount a theatrical production so "real" and "true" it will somehow capture every nuance and paradox of life. "This is a play about dating," he tells Hazel. "It's a play about death. Birth. Life. Family. It's about everything."
While Adele's pinpoint specificity (she paints portraits of the women she loves, and they are so minuscule they must be viewed through jeweler's glasses) makes her an instant star, Caden's inchoate ambition to express everything in the world at once sends him scurrying down an infinite network of rabbit holes. The set is perpetually added on to and struck. None of it gets him any closer to expressing his inner life, none of it shows any sign of stopping.
He casts an actress named Claire (Michelle Williams) to play Hazel as the box-office girl, then marries her, then recasts her as herself, then hires the real Hazel to be his assistant, then casts another actress (Emily Watson) to play Hazel in her new role. Late in the film, the mysterious man (Tom Noonan) who has been following him throughout the movie shows up at a casting call and announces he wants to play him. He knows Caden, understands him, knows him better than Caden knows himself, can explain him to him.
What is going on with Caden? Is he sick? Crazy? Dying? Already dead? Pretty much all of the above, though not in the usual sense. Kaufman is trying to do what Caden is trying to do; he's trying to make sense of loss, longing and death. He's mining all the sadness in the world. As for happiness, he's suspicious. It's a sham product sold by a huckster (Hope Davis, as his therapist and bestselling self-help author). He's marveling at the struggle and the longing, multiplied by the billions, in the face of futility. He's having an existential freakout on an epic scale.