Synecdoche, New York is a surreal, absurd trip that brushes with greatness, but ends up being an absolute mess. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) manages to eke out some scenes of raw beauty, but these are sadly lost in the pandemonium of the film's storytelling.
The film's main character is the overwrought Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director cursed with an illness that slowly stops all his autonomic functions. He can't salivate, his pupils won't dilate and he can't create tears-- if he wants to cry, he needs to put in some eyedrops to get teary-eyed.
For the first 30 minutes, it's a charming little picture that has a subtle dreamlike quality. As Caden gets older and his obsession with his warehouse project consumes him, it quickly begins to divert into out-and-out alternate reality. Hazel (masterfully played by Samantha Morton), Caden's quirky mistress and aide de camp, lives in a house that has a low-level fire flickering throughout. This isn't to say the house is actually burning down-- a grey haze from the smoke fills the place as the flames smoulder, but it's still habitable. It doesn't make sense, obviously, but suspension of disbelief is tested even further as the film moves into the second act.
As Caden's illness makes him more and more decrepit, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him for Germany, finding fame and salvation from her boring suburban life as an uber-chic painter. In an attempt to create something artistically pure and true to life, Caden decides to create a smaller-scale version of New York in a massive warehouse in real-life New York. Over an excessively long period of time-- at least 20 years-- he works out the kinks and watches his own life slowly become part of the production, hiring an actor, Sammy (Tom Morton), to play himself in this little production. Sammy eventually gets an actor to portray himself, adding to the signature Kaufman metatextuality.
The problem is these little touches distract from the emotional centre of the film. Viewers are wrenched from important moments by the audacious ludicrousness of the film's indulgences, leaving the audience to wonder just what the fuck is going on because the storytelling is too abstract to parse out the themes. What's more, there isn't a real emotional arc for audiences to latch on to, which really takes the impact out of the story.
If Kaufman is trying to go for a theme-based experimental film, it's not communicated at all. If he's trying to tell an emotional tale, there's nothing to get into until the end. As Caden's search for purity and truth in his play becomes more cold and misanthropic, the lack of emotional satisfaction in the film reaches ever higher. Only near the end does Caden begin to understand what the ending of the play will really look like and plot threads begin to tie each other. It's too little, too late for the bored and confused audience who are frustrated after a very long 124 minutes of back-and-forth insanity.
It was inevitable Kaufman would eventually fall flat on his face after his string of astounding successes. Synecdoche, New York just isn't a cohesive flick for its bloated run time. This will be a film for young film buffs to obsess over and dissect, but leaves audiences looking for something easier to interpret.