Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director and playwright who is prone to soul searching and lightly neurotic behaviour. He wakes today and drags himself out of bed, barely registering that his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has her own worries, but then, she is glossing over the fact that their four-year-old daughter's shit is green, so they're not really on the same wavelength at this time in the morning. Or have they been for some time? After all, they attend a psychiatrist to see if they can work out their marital problems, although it is Caden's body that he's beginning to worry about, not least when the tap flies off and hits him while he's shaving.
Synecdoche, New York was the directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, which saw him delving ever deeper into the minds of the creative to work out what made them tick, and not being especially clear on his findings. It was plain early on that it would sharply divide opinion, either regarded as so self-indulgent as to be meaningless to anybody but Kaufman, or actually a moving exploration of the lengths artists go to to make sense of their lives through their work, and the impossibility of ever being truly satisfied with what they come up with. It resembles a twisted biopic of a subject even the man himself cannot get a handle on, despite him being his own subject, striving to collect as much detail as he can in growing desperation.
The trademark fantasy elements of the Kaufman universe were present and correct, from incidental, where one character's house is permanently burning - not to the ground, but in selected corners - to major, where the project that Caden embarks on spirals ludicrously out of control so that an entire city is acting in it under his direction; maybe even the whole world. At first glance it looks like a collection of random scenes picked from the protagonist's life as we watch him grow older while still never achieving everything he feels he is capable of, yet prone to doubt that ensures whatever he undertakes rambles on without any conclusion in sight. Well, there is one conclusion, and that is death, the spectre of which pops up regularly.
The play that Caden is meant to be putting on, he has a grant and everything, is supposed to be a tribute to his own talent, endorsed by the powers that be in the theatre world, which you would think would offer him newfound confidence to truly nail it. However, while he has managed to put on other people's work with some success, although we're never convinced he is a towering talent, when it comes to examining his own existence it is like knitting fog. The production's rehearsals don't begin until the film is a quarter of the way over, as before that we are privy to Caden's troubles as his marriage breaks down and Adele moves to Germany with their daughter, he fails to substitute her with a follow-up relationship (his life revolves around women even more than his work does) and his health worries mount up as he frets that he is deterioriating, with accidents, skin conditions and a leg tremor among his concerns.
What is actually concerning him is that he getting older, and everyone else is doing the same so that he cannot keep track of it all: he still thinks his daughter is four when he sees her in a magazine as a ten-year-old with a full body tattoo, and soon she is an adult dancing in a seedy club, then on her death before he has even had a chance to get to know her. Time moves on with alarming pace here, and when the actors in the play complain that they have been rehearsing for seventeen years, it's deliberately disorienting. The main problem that Kaufman is wrestling with is that the creative impulse, stronger in some than in others, leads to a mire of self-examination, and when has that prompted anything but criticism and self-loathing? The depressive nature typical to his work is well in evidence here, and while his film can be very funny, it is weighed down with dejection and a feeling of futility on the face of oblivion, as the apocalyptic ending depicts. Yet if you respond to it, one viewing will probably not be enough. Music by Jon Brion.