The hotbed of anxiety and ego that can underlie a theater rehearsal or a routine visit to a doctor's office - that's one of several emotional textures that writer-director Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) captures with low-key humor and precision in Synecdoche, New York. Sadly, as the movie rambles along with its own brand of quasi-magical surrealism, the links to real experience grow scarcer and more frayed.
In terms of how the scenes move and fit together, everything is a little off, and not in the good way we associate with Kaufman when he is in top form. The meaning of synecdoche (never explained in the film) is a figure of speech for a part of a subject being used to refer to the whole, like "hand" for "sailor" or "Broadway" for New York's theater district. Of course, Kaufman may have used the word mostly for its near-perfect rhyme with Schenectady, N.Y.: Sih-NECK-doh-kee and Sckih-NECK-tah-dee.
The latter is the name of the town where his hapless stage director hero (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mounts a community-theater production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. He stages it just before his wife goes off to Berlin, where she gains fame as an artist and, alas, stays, with their, double alas, daughter. His spouse hasn't approved of the anti-hero directing old classics to move audiences whose members are sometimes even older. Like us, she does realize that his neurotic personality expresses itself in complicated "concepts," such as casting the role of Willy Loman, Miller's salesman on his last legs, with a young actor. She just isn't that interested.
So when he wins a MacArthur "genius" grant, he decides to do something personally expressive from the get-go. He rents a New York City warehouse and fills it with actors who are supposed to use their own lives and his notes as material. On an ever-more-intricate set that replicates the New York outside the warehouse, he aims to capture the tensions and nuances of real life. Kaufman, who, like his hero, expresses himself through complication (not necessarily complexity), wants us to see that this is and isn't synecdoche. The new play may start out as a part standing for a whole, but it becomes an artificial whole representing and then substituting for the whole outside the warehouse walls.
Instead of creating an epic, of course, the director-playwright fashions a piece that centers shakily on his own obsessions, even as it grows inexorably and improbably in scale. His inability either to win his first wife back or create a decent life for his second wife (Michelle Williams) - his leading lady playing herself in the staged play - becomes the wobbly foundation of a mammoth, never-ending, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink (and toilet) extravaganza.
During this guided improvisation with no end point, the movie has some of the fun of watching a man build a series of Chinese boxes and fill them with every breath he takes. He employs the straightforward Schenectady box-office gal (Samantha Morton), who loved him and could have made him happy, as his assistant. Later he casts another woman (Emily Watson) as this down-to-earth dream girl, and another man (Tom Noonan) as himself.
Amorous disasters ensue. The piece never approaches completion. You wonder how he keeps attracting actors. Then you start to wonder the same thing about Kaufman, which may be his intention. Kaufman carries wispy, self-deprecating humor into the realm of abstraction. That doesn't make it any more robust or profound.
Both Kaufman and Hoffman's character become wool-gatherers, so in love with the stage or the soundstage and the opportunities it holds for self-expression that they forget why they are there in the first place. The rare comic grace notes come from theatrical satire of time-tested caricatures like the actor who no longer remembers how he walks when he's not playing a role. Kaufman's vision - like his alter ego's - doesn't sharpen; it stays in soft focus. The wilder ideas, such as a house that's perpetually ablaze, even when people live in it, have no heat.
Hoffman is so good at self-loathing that you begin to wish you were seeing him as another dapper fool, like the preppy in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's as if we're witnessing Death of an Actor. Synecdoche, New York may be an art thing, but it reminded me of what Eric Idle once said was the difference between life and a Saturday Night Live sketch. Life, Idle said, was finite.
Synecdoche, New York ** ( 2 STARS)
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams. Directed by Charlie Kaufman. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Time 124 minutes