At its start, we meet our protagonist, playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of the rope. He’s a struggling, mostly miserable theater director in Schenectady, New York, with an increasingly distant artist wife (Catherine Keener), a distracted. self-promoting therapist (Davis), and a rash of new and rather disturbing health problems. (In short, Hoffman is about as happy in Schenectady as he was in Buffalo.) The only bright spots in his day, basically, are his adorable, inquisitive daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and his half-hearted flirtations with Claire (Samantha Morton), the buxom girl who runs the box office, and Hazel (Michelle Williams), his lead actress in a youthful reimagining of Death of a Salesman. Depression, thoughts of (and worries about) infidelity, useless bouts of therapy, clinical hypochrondria, dwelling on mortality…If this all is starting to sound like a more expressionistic version of your standard-issue Woody Allen film so far, you’re in the right ballpark, at least for the first forty minutes or so. (And I mean that in the best way possible.)
But then, things get stranger. As Caden’s wife Adele lights off to Germany with Olive in tow, and Caden manages to lock down a MacArthur genius grant for his next project, Synecdoche begins to venture deeper into Kaufman territory. Caden relocates to NYC, manages to negotiate an impossibly-large warehouse as his new theater space, and begins work on his magnum opus, a play that — through hundreds of thespians acting out daily victories and defeats — tries to recreate, and thus comment on, every facet of our quotidian existence. But where does the play stop and life begin? Caden soon finds he needs to cast an actor (Tom Noonan) to play himself directing, as well as actresses to portray the various women in his life. (In a clever bit of casting, Emily Watson ends up playing faux-Morton, which makes perfect sense given that they’re respectively the Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney of indy British cinema.) And, later, when it seems individual identities might be getting in the way of the abstract universalism of the piece, well, maybe it’s time to just recast or rewrite Caden Cotard completely, don’t you think? It’s fine with him, to be honest — He’s gotten pretty damn sick of playing himself anyway.
“I’ve told you before, this is not a play about dating, it’s about death,” argues one character in Synecdoche near its conclusion. Caden demurs. “‘It is a play about dating. It’s not just a play about death. It’s about everything: dating, earth, death, life, family, all that.‘” Well, to be honest, that may be part of the ultimate problem here. Kaufman’s exquisite earlier effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is pretty much just a movie about dating (ok, and love, and loss, and memory…but bear with me here), and it’s all the more focused and moving because of it.
By contrast, Synecdoche is kinda all over the place, and gets increasingly sprawling and messy as it goes on. The film is sometimes too clever by half and sometimes needlessly maudlin, and it barely keeps one foot on the ground in any event. Still, I definitely admired the degree of difficulty here, and applaud Kaufman for even attempting to say something profound and meaningful about the human condition, when most films just want me to feel satisfied that all the Act 2 loose ends were cleared up by Act 3. (Wow, those two crazy cats who met-cute in Act 1 got back together? Who woulda thunk it?) In that regard, I’m very glad I saw this movie — even if, as with, say, Primer, I’m pretty sure a lot of what was going on eluded me the first viewing — and I find my thoughts still returning to it several weeks later. While you may find Synecdoche boring and/or bewildering, and you may even end up hating it, I’m willing to bet dollars-to-donuts you haven’t seen a movie like it in quite some time, if ever.