Does everything work in this mind-bender from Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? No way. Synecdoche, New York is exhilarating and exasperating in equal doses. But Kaufman, making his directing debut, is focused on something you don’t find at multiplexes overrun with chihuahuas and violent escapism: That would be a life of the mind. Kaufman wants to prove that intellectual ambition isn’t dead at the movies. Godspeed.
Philip Seymour Hoffman creates a mesmerizing portrait of the artist as a young, old and middle-aged man. He plays Caden Cotard, a stage director struggling on the fringes in Schenectady, New York. Ailments attack his body in ways that would appall Dennis Potter. His shrink (Hope Davis) despairs of him. His painter wife (Catherine Keener, first-rate as always) leaves for Berlin with their daughter and never returns.
Then a genius grant allows Caden to construct a huge theater piece in a warehouse in Manhattan. The subject is Caden’s life, and he takes a lifetime to create it. The play is a synecdoche, a figure of speech that indicates a part standing in for the whole.
Are you with me? Even if you’re not, stick with the movie. Kaufman provides juicy roles for his actors, including Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest and Tom Noonan, who get caught in the time warp as art imitates something resembling existence. There’s wit in the casting of Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden’s mistress, and Emily Watson (often mistaken for Morton) as the actress Caden hires to play Hazel. In the end, Kaufman’s movie is too much of everything. But it’s that rare bird in our debased pop culture that gives you something to chew on when you leave the theater besides where to go for dinner.