So many elements are in place for Synecdoche, New York to be excellent. There's writer Charlie Kaufman, who penned the fantastic films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. And then there is director... Charlie Kaufman?
The best of Kaufman's previous films were helmed by directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry—both of whom succeed in translating Kaufman's cerebral scripts into films that, while intellectual exercises of a sort, were nonetheless engaging, funny, and affecting. But with Synecdoche, Kaufman directs—and without the sensibility or skill of another director, the viewer is subjected to the un-tempered vision of Kaufman and Kaufman alone. Frankly, it's rather unpleasant.
Synecdoche shares with the three aforementioned films Kaufman's patented meta-neuroses—a watching-you-watching-me level of self-consciousness so acute that it requires artistic mediation (if not medication). Kaufman's previous films introduced characters who suffered from the condition, both universal and claustrophobically specific, of being stuck inside their own heads, and with imagination and flair, Kaufman created narrative devices to examine and escape that condition: portals, memory-erasing devices, fictional twin brothers. Here, it's art that's the out: A director begins work on a play that replicates life so closely that it actually becomes life, taking place in a massive fake city and populated with characters based on characters in the protagonist's own life.
When the film begins—and before narrative and temporal coherence fly out the window—we're introduced to Caden Cotard (Hoffman), a successful theater director. Caden's wife, Adele (Keener), is a painter, creating miniature portraits so detailed they require special magnifying glasses to see. It's clear that their beloved daughter is the only thing keeping this pair together: At couples' counseling, Adele confesses that she fantasizes about Caden's death. Shortly thereafter, she packs up their daughter and moves to Berlin.
From this conventional launching point, the film abruptly hopscotches into the surreal: Caden's friend Hazel (Samantha Morton) tries to tell him that it's time to let go of his wife, that she hasn't called him in a year. "It's been a week!" a bewildered Caden insists. The adorable Hazel, meanwhile, lives in a burning house (literally—there are flames) and represents Caden's chance at real happiness, one that he stubbornly and stupidly resists. Instead, he purchases a gigantic warehouse and begins work on a new play. As months, years, and decades go by, the play begins to resemble life ever more closely, with Caden casting actors to play himself and his friends—which then, in the hall of mirrors that is this play and this movie, requires hiring more actors to play the actors who are playing the people who are playing the people who are... and so on.
As disappointing as it is to admit this, Synecdoche is a chore, a dour collection of inexpertly packaged ideas that simply doesn't inspire the intellectual curiosity necessary to understand it. If you're bound and determined to watch a film in which a microcosm of life replaces the real thing, you're better off getting high and watching The Truman Show.