I'm always offended when I see academic books written by people who should know better parsing John Wayne's wardrobe in "The Searchers," or the meaning of Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life." It's there, we didn't need to know the trivial when there are important things to discuss. I say this because "Synecdoche, N.Y." will in fact generate many graduate theses, and deservedly so. It is, in fact, a film with so much to say that it will take many minds to begin unraveling it, and I say more power to it. Remember that the author and director, Charlie Kaufman, wrote "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." He's already shown us the breadth of his imagination; now in "Synecdoche, N.Y." he shows us the depth of it as well.
The film begins with a Schenectady, N.Y. stage director named Caden Cotard putting the final touches to his production of "Death of a Salesman," which has the original thought of casting young people as Willy and his wife. That substitution will have resonance, I think, throughout the film, because as we follow Caden from, say, age 30 to age 80, he finds that there is little difference between young and old. You should know that Cotard is the name of a psychological term for one who thinks of himself as dead or putrefying.
Caden is married to an artist, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener); they have a daughter, age four, named Olive. Adele paints pictures so small they have to be viewed through a jeweler's loupe or magnifying glasses. She is invited to show a retrospective in Berlin and takes Olive with her. "I don't want you to come," she tells Caden, and that is the last we see of her.
Then Caden wins a MacArthur 'genius' grant, and moves to New York to make a production that will encompass all aspects of life, in an empty warehouse that is big enough to hold a blinp. In a word, Caden spends the rest of his life trying to put everything about his own life and his strange failures - to love, to focus, to commit - into the new production, which though it does not have a title can be seen as a synecdoche for his own life.
In the meantime, Caden finds women who could love him - Samantha Morton, Emily Watson - and puts them into his own play, along with an army of extras who somehow are a part of his own life. But Caden has many issues of his own, including strange eyesight illnesses, urine that runs blood red, pustules, many other things that move us in the audience into an identification with him as death comes to those around him. There is, for instance, a recurring motif of a house on fire that seems not to bother anyone who lives in it until the owner dies of smoke inhalation some years later. What does the fire represent? I leave that to you.
So what I'm saying in this review is that "Synecdoche, N.Y." is a film that yields insights into itself only reluctantly. It seems to deal with death in life, with vain struggles to keep death away, to show vitality, to press onward against all odds. Time is flexible, we know that Caden Cotard grows old, but only as the rest of us do, living in the moment. This is not an easy film, but one that's worth every moment you spend with it.