Synecdoche, New York
There are so many flaky layers to Synecdoche, New York, so many events and incidents in this zigzagging, perambulating portrait of the artist as pretentious, possibly delusional, man-hurtling-towards-death that a mere recounting of the plot would be pointless. But a brief synopsis: Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, New York theatre director, stages a novel interpretation of Death of a Salesman to great acclaim. His wife, a painter of impossibly tiny miniatures, leaves him and finds fame and fortune in Berlin. He wins a McArthur "genius" grant and decides to stage a monumental play, something "big and true and tough," to leave his mark on the world, to justify his own sense of self-importance (or is it merely self-absorption?). All of which is utterly beside the point.
What you need to know is this: Synecdoche, New York is the first film directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote it. Kaufman is the author of other complex, eccentric films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so you wouldn't expect Synecdoche, New York to be, say, a James Bond film (although a Charlie Kaufman 007 movie might be kinda cool in an impossibly weird and fantastic way that would make me really want to see it). Kaufman's work is about, in a nutshell, the mind -- which is an impossibly beautiful, complex, sometimes nutty thing, just like his movies. Synecdoche, New York is also about, among other things, time, love, life and death, and about how in the midst of life we are in death, etc., (you know, the really BIG stuff), and delusions (of grandeur, of immortality, of mortality, of decay), (look up Cotard delusion), (Kaufman's films are the sort to require multiple parenthetical asides, in lieu of footnotes), (Synecdoche, New York is a film that is itself like a series of parenthetical asides, many of them sneakily inserted so that you just barely notice them and have to make a vague mental note to go look something up later, like "Cotard delusion"), (I have 13 pages of vaguely specific notes from watching this movie, whereas the average movie results in two or three pages).
And what else? The film feels oddly longer than it is, although later, you'll wonder how so many ideas and incidents were crammed into so little time, which works perfectly with the way in which it is about a life that sometimes feels longer than it is, and sometimes far too short for what all gets done, or must get done. Synecdoche, New York follows Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for about 40 years, more or less. He is a man obsessed with all the little things (eruptions, boils, fluids) that happen to and come out of his body (and they must mean something awful and big and nasty is brewing, all these oozing effluents). He's a guy who sweats the little stuff to the point that he hasn't the attention left to notice the big stuff. The big stuff, narrowly defined, is what he wants -- big recognition, big ideas, to produce a masterpiece. In a massive warehouse, he catalogs all manner of human experience and indignity, with his own life, and the lives of his actors (Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson), and his one true love (Samantha Morton) folding into, enmeshing, entangling, intermingling, becoming the lives of the characters in the play he can't name (Simulacrum, maybe) and can't finish. The real and the ideal, life and art, all mixed together like the multiplying and self-reflecting shards of a shattered mirror.
It's not an easy film, and Kaufman keeps dropping mental bread crumbs all over the place, little bits of ideas that you have to pick up and pocket and sort out later. The sorting-out-later is the most gratifying part of Kaufman's films, but it's the part that is probably the most alienating aspect of his work too, at least for those who, having digested their popcorn, want their movie work to be done. Kaufman works on big, serious themes, but he's also seriously, smartly funny, and all those little mental notes that keep falling out of his screenplays, all the dictionary words and visual gags and puns, they just fall like confetti all over Synecdoche, New York.
I fear that none of this will make you want to see the film, so I make this blatant appeal to narcissism: the synecdoche in Synecdoche, New York is that Cotard, the part, the man, is the everyman who represents us all, with our own obsessions over the insignificant parts of ourselves and our lives, the pimples and excess hairs, the hair loss and excess pounds. Who doesn't want to see a movie about him/herself? Cotard's tragedy is everyone's tragedy -- the triumph of the narrow, the inane, the trivial, over the significant, the beautiful, the glorious. Yeah, it's a hard sell. But how about this? Kaufman is a masterful artificer, but his greatest skill is that out of his utterly surreal inventions, truth and reality emerge, and out of the ugliness and effluence, awkward beauty always breaks through.