Since Kaufman's protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a theater director, it's tempting to read Synecdoche, New York as autobiographical (to be fair, casting oneself as the lead in a previous screenplay sort of invites this reading). But Kaufman's protagonists are almost always artists, and as a story of the creative process, the film is more personal than self-referential; as with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the biggest conflict here is the divide between what we aspire to create and our own frailties. When we meet Caden, his marriage to painter Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) is failing and he's suffering through a series of mysterious ailments that, among other things, deprive him of the ability to salivate or cry. The early scenes of Caden directing a regional production of Death of a Salesman tell us how to read the rest of the film; "Everyone is disappointing the more you know someone," Adele tells Caden, and Caden's directions to his actors double as Kaufman's suggestion that drama is an attempt to understand these disappointments and, perhaps, to find something sublime in our imperfect lives. A scene where Caden reminds a room of actors that someday they'll all be dead should ring true for any director, whose job it is to sometimes make everyone around him feel completely terrible (and what does this say about anyone who would want this job?).
Adele's paintings are extremely small-scale, while Caden, who is awarded a MacArthur genius grant and uses the money to stage an experimental theatre piece inside an enormous warehouse, finds his own work becoming more and more elephantine. As the play expands over the years to encompass everyone in Caden's life and, eventually, a Caden double named Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) who has been observing Caden for years, the film also grows beyond the dramas of Caden's life - his second marriage to narcissistic actress Claire (Michelle Williams), his search for his estranged daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein as a kid, Robin Weigert as an adult) and his bittersweet friendship with his soulmate Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house that is always on fire - to encompass our collective drama, even hinting at the dystopian future we fear awaits us around the corner. Synecdoche, New York began with a studio exec's suggestion that Kaufman try writing a horror movie, and it often plays like a realization of our worst nightmares; this may be why many critics and audience members have rejected it as completely unpalatable (the multiple shots of characters examining their own shit probably didn't help either). But the film's dourness is offset by two things. First, it's extremely subjective, taking as its POV a struggling artist, a particularly difficult breed of human being (my wife is a saint). While I've encountered artists like Adele who choose to only experience the enjoyable aspects of life, I've never really understood how they pull that off (Olive's fate suggests that this is unadvisable, in any case). Second, if cinema is a collective art form, than the catharsis in the face of misery I described in my opening can be a powerful shared experience - though it's Hoffman's character in Doubt who preaches that doubt can be a powerful bond, it's Kaufman's film that realizes that concept more fully than the other, heavy-handed and stage-bound film can begin to. Besides, Synecdoche, New York is hardly two hours of suffering - it's too funny and compassionate, too self-deprecating in its unhappiness (note the multiple scenes where Caden cries during sex), too recognizably human to dismiss.
Kaufman is met in his outsized ambitions by Hoffman (never better) and the murderer's row of actresses playing the women who make up Caden's universe (why is it that movies about directing are always also about fucking?). I pretty much fell in love with Morton's Hazel, who is always at Caden's side but rarely says what she's really feeling, and the casting of Emily Watson as Morton's double is as delightful a metatextual high-wire act as the double team of Noonan and Diane Wiest as Caden's masculine and feminine selves. They and the rest of the cast admirably rise to the occassion of pulling off the emotional and conceptual obstacles Kaufman has constructed for them - as a FFC commenter pointed out, only Kaufman could construct a heartbreaking scene around the line "I'm sorry for abandoning you to have anal sex with my homosexual lover, Eric." Director of photography Frederick Elmes and production designer Mark Friedburg also deserve a great deal of credit for creating the flat, slightly dated world of the film, which grows more and more surreal as it progresses. And Jon Brion's score is a masterpiece of sustained anxiety - all of these elements together result in a film that is mostly about the anticipation of terrible or wonderful or important moments that, when they arrive, are over before we've realized it. Which would seem psychotic if it weren't generally true.