Charlie Kaufman is probably the greatest living screenwriter. I mean, I don't know who officially decides these things, but it's probably film critics, so if I say it's true, then it's true.
Nonetheless, Synecdoche, New York is an overreach, even for Kaufman. For about the first 45 minutes, I was sitting in awe, thinking, "This is by far the best film I've seen this year." But then things slowly and inexorably declined as Kaufman made the same, difficult point over and over and over again.
Still, Synecdoche, New York could wind up being the year's best film after all, if only because it's been a crappy year for non-superhero-related cinema. The story starts in a very non-Kaufman manner, with a heavy sense of realism. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director in the small town of Schenectady, N.Y. His home is cramped and decrepit; his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), isn't very fond of him; and his hypochondria makes every activity into a dangerous flirtation with panic.
Hoffman and Keener are both excellent, and it's nice that neither appears to have been mass-manufactured at the android factory that makes the Albas and Anistons and Lohans and Longorias of the world. Instead, their imperfect skin and oddly shaped bodies look at home in the suburban setting.
Keener drops out of the story early on as the distance between Caden and Adele literally and metaphorically increases: Adele moves with the couple's 4-year-old daughter to Germany, where Adele takes up a marriage of artistic import with two men and one woman. In response, Caden becomes enamored with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the ticket-taker at his little theater; carries on an affair with his lead actress (Michelle Williams); is sexually harassed by his deranged therapist (Hope Davis); and is stalked by a mysterious man in a mackintosh (Tom Noonan). All of this is fairly mundane until, about 45 minutes into the film, a real estate transaction occurs.
Hazel the ticket-taker decides to buy a house, and she is shown one that is on fire. "I don't know. I'm not sure I want to die in a fire," she says to the real estate agent. "Yes, it's a difficult decision, choosing how to die," says the agent. Hazel buys the house, which she lives in as it slowly burns down over the course of the next 40 years.
Meanwhile, Cotard begins rehearsals on a play in New York City based on his life, and he casts actors to play the parts of everyone he knows. Then, he must cast actors for the actors, because as he gets to know them, they become parts of his life. Simultaneously, he re-creates New York City inside a warehouse, and then re-creates that warehouse and its mini-city inside itself, over and over again. He remarries and has another daughter who, like his first daughter, is named Olive. He casts his wife as herself in his play, and then watches as the man he's cast to play himself engages in sexual behavior with his wife, and then must recast his wife's part when she leaves him and quits the play.
This is where the title comes in ("synecdoche" is a variant of metaphor, where parts stand for wholes, and wholes for parts): Each duplication fails to duplicate, because it becomes a smaller part of a greater whole. Each bit references itself and its context, and each attempt at arresting the play of representation and duplication leads only to more representation and duplication.
While this has been done before, it has never been done so telescopically and totally--and this is both the film's great strength and its fatal flaw. Kaufman is a master at tiny touches of weirdness: They're never there for their own sake, or just as displays of cleverness, but always remain integral to his story. Kaufman's literary self-awareness thus rises above metafiction's obsession with form, and instead is used to create a work that explores minute but meaningfully recognizable human experiences.
Once Kaufman gets deep into his duplications, his point seems to be that a life cannot be understood. This is a fine and excellent point; Caden's efforts to stage a play about himself in order to control and understand everything that's happening to him is, of course, ill-fated and hubristic. But in order to establish this, Kaufman has each element slip away, get duplicated and slip away, again and again and again. While I get what he's doing, and the point is clearly made, he could have done it in less time with greater effect.
His ending is particularly nice, but it's blunted by the slack period of repetitions that precede it. The film, in being about a life that goes astray due to over-analysis, falls prey to the very thing it's about: excessive self-analysis and endless, obsessive repetition of themes. I guess that's the point, but it's kind of like making a film about boredom: It's a tar-baby of a topic. Kaufman does a decent job, but with a little more self-control, this could have been a masterpiece.