In his 2002 film “Adaptation.” Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) questions the script guru Robert McKee (Brian Keith) about his prescriptive approach to screenwriting, asking how his principles of story would apply to a movie about real life, where people don't overcome obstacles or become better — “where nothing happens.”
An infuriated McKee, bubbling over with rage, responds incredulously, saying that violence, disappointment, disease and death happen every day in real life. He asks Kaufman whether such things are nothing, and if so, why he's wasting his two hours with a movie.
The character Kaufman shrinks at the rebuke, but in a way the real version has used his latest film and first directorial effort, “Synecdoche, New York,” to ask again.
The movie is about a playwright, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), trying to distill the human condition into a single, lengthy, grandiose work. Caden suffers most of the travails pointed out by McKee, but in the most humorous fashion. He contracts a rare, disgusting disease. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), leaves him without a word, taking their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), with her. He notices dire commercials are talking explicitly about him.
These troubles, along with a lavish arts grant, encourage Caden to create his monumental play about existence, a conceit Kaufman uses to blur the line between Caden's mind and reality much as he blends Caden's home town, Schenectady, with the film's title (which means a part that represents the whole, or vice versa) and Caden's life work.
The synecdoche Caden creates is literal: He builds an outrageously realistic, life-sized portion of New York in a hilariously large warehouse in New York, then populates it with actors playing himself and friends (including Samantha Morton, Hope Davis and Emily Watson). He has the actors and crew work on the piece for decades, in effect becoming the play while creating it. Caden eventually hires an actor to play himself (Tom Noonan), directing actors playing the actors playing the real people, and so on, until it's impossible to tell where the warehouse, like the universe, ends.
Eventually a cleaning lady takes over the entire production, but Kaufman never reveals what's real and what's in Caden's imagination, or if the distinction matters. The film runs long enough to make arguments about its ultimate meaning numberless, and also to turn delight at its irreverent imagination into glances at the time.
“Citizen Kane” famously decided a man's life couldn't be summed up in a story. “Synecdoche, New York,” in a way, is like real life, alternately amusing and frustrating, and long enough (more than two hours) to eventually lose its luster. You could go back numerous times to make new discoveries and will be tempted by the enjoyment, but, like life, once is probably enough. (R) 124 min. HHHHH S