For its first 20 or so minutes, Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning, mind-bending screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, appears to be a meditation on death. We first meet its protagonist, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while he's lying in bed listening to a radio talk show host prattle on about the arrival of fall is a metaphor for the arrival of death.
"I don't feel well," Caden informs his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) over breakfast, but she's too busy minding their young daughter to pay him much attention. A visit to the doctor reveals something may in fact be wrong with Caden physically, and he's soon sprouting pustules all over his body.
Hovering at the edges of all this are fleeting elements of the surreal (like Caden showing up in a cartoon his daughter watches on TV) that seem to signal Synecdoche, New York is building towards a fantasia about a man confronting his own mortality. But that turns out to be far too limited a description for Kaufman's ultimate ambition.
I cannot properly tell you what Synecdoche, New York is about, because even after seeing the film, I haven't a clue. What I can definitely and conclusively say is that although I did not exactly enjoy watching the movie - it has maddeningly tedious and repetitive stretches - I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, either.
Kaufman, of course, has never colored inside the lines as a screenwriter (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But this movie makes those earlier pictures seem like the work of someone who was just getting warmed up. On the surface, Synecdoche, New York tells the story of what happens to Caden (and the various women in his life) after Adele leaves him, he receives a MacArthur Grant and devotes himself to creating a "massive theater piece" that will be uncompromising and honest.
But the movie, which gradually departs from all traditional logic and reality, is not what about happens next, but what it makes you contemplate as you're watching it. The more you ruminate on Synecdoche, New York - which starts folding into itself as Caden's play consumes his life (and everyone in it) - the more resonance you find in it.
Kaufman is grappling with big themes usually reserved for dense literature: the meaning of life, its sadness and tragedy, the devices and traps we use to manipulate, get along with, or simply tolerate other people. The movie is overstuffed with ideas, many of them visual (like the house of one of the characters, which is always on fire, yet no one ever mentions is - the elephant in the room), and it is improbably - no, impossible, to take them all in with one viewing.
Kaufman doesn't care: This is not that kind of movie. Synecdoche, New York defies simple description, and I can't say, after seeing it once, it is entirely successful. But despite my fidgeting and occasional watch-checking during my first viewing, I'm looking forward to seeing it again, when I suspect a few of its teasing, beguiling mysteries will become a little clearer. But just a few. And only a little. You have never seen a movie quite like this one.