The word "synecdoche" is defined as a figure of speech in which a part of a word is use for the whole of it. Yeah... that pretty much sums up the lack of sense of Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. Even trying to pronounce half of the title is a task in and of itself, never mind trying to grasp what the movie could all be about. But strangely it's a compelling and satisfyingly ambiguous piece of work that features superb performances and poses so any questions that multiple viewings is absolutely essential.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a troubled theatre director who, after being awarded a MacArthur genius grant, attempts to create an ambitious, gigantic play in a gargantuan-sized set of New York inside a warehouse. He has health troubles, women troubles, family troubles, and all the while is trying to figure what his play actually is about and how he's going to finish. To explain the plot any further would be an act in futility on my part.
The majority of Synecdoche, New York makes little to no sense, even upon further inspection during a second viewing. It starts off like a normal story about a troubled theatre director and his ambitious new project, but we learn quickly that this isn't going to be your run-of-the-mill movie. It takes us down the rabbit hole that's inside the world within the rabbit hole... and then takes down another one after that. But much like David Lynch's masterpiece Inland Empire, I imagine Kaufman didn't intend for the movie to make sense... or at least I think he didn't.
Hoffman is perfect for the role of Caden; he gets to play that awkward, likable despite his flaws, shlubby character that we all know he can play in his sleep. Surrounded by amazing supporting performances from the likes of Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hoffman goes through the fractured, layered narrative talking about the philosophical intentions of his play... and yet he seems to know nothing. Caden seems very much intent on keeping the characters as much in the dark as we are, with things happening out of blue that sometimes bother the characters and sometimes not. It's all a bit of a head trip.
What shines through clearly here is Kaufman's inexperience as a director. Three of his previous screenplays, the brilliant Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, had Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, respectively, behind the camera to guide them and keep them semi-comprehensible so they could thus be enjoyed by a pretty wide audience, despite the weirdness inherent within them. However, with Synecdoche, the shackles are off and it doesn't have as good an effect. It's about the only thing that holds the movie back, the thing that ultimately stops it from being accurately labeled a masterpiece. Kaufman is a much better writer than he is a director, and one only wonders just how phenomenal this thing could have been had someone like Jonze or Gondry directed it instead.