Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York.”
To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is an encapsulation of human frailty, yearning, love, lust, life and death makes the film sound pretentious and overreaching. But Kaufman, the pop surrealist who wrote “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” has been building up to this his entire career.
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 40-ish theater director bound by his own neuroses and mired in an artistic rut, directing “Death of a Salesman” for his Schenectady, N.Y. community theater. His obsessions and psychosomatic illnesses drive his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) away, but not in a melodramatic way. She simply stops respecting him, and chooses to spirit their young daughter Olive away to Berlin, where Adele becomes a famous painter of miniscule portraits and they live with Adele’s unstable best friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
But then Caden receives a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” allowing him full reign to create something meaningful with his talents. What transpires is a tremendously ambitious theatrical production in a New York City warehouse in which all the people in his life — his lover Hazel (Samantha Morton), his second wife Claire (Michelle Williams) and everyone around them — are played by actors in an enormous stage resembling the teeming city outside the warehouse walls.
That is the central quirk, the Kaufmanesque essence of “Synecdoche,” and at key points the film’s “art imitating life imitating art” conceit resembles a snake eating its tail. But this film is not simply an absurdist look at theatrical ambition. Kaufman shows Caden’s life in full, a 40-year series of missteps, miscommunications, sad attempts at reconciliation, parental failure, lost love and the end that awaits us all.
“Synecdoche, New York” not an easy film and is likely to be a great polarizer, frustrating some viewers to the point of hatred. And it could take at least two or three viewings for Kaufman’s full intent to be felt, but few films dare examine humanity’s truths with such bare emotion as this odd, difficult journey through Caden Cotard’s “Death of a Salesman” life.