The title of Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, takes its name from a figure of speech in which a part of something can refer to the whole, or vice versa, like the way "use your head" means "use your brains." (Plus, it puns on the town of Schenectady, N.Y., one of its locales.) As cinema's trippiest screenwriter, Kaufman knows about using heads, such as the way he imagined a portal into a movie star's cranium in Being John Malkovich.
In Synecdoche, a cavernous warehouse becomes a replica of New York City and a mirror of morose, hypochondriacal theater artist Caden Cotard's (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman) mental state. Synecdoche begins with Caden in a rut, obsessed with his countless physical ailments while his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), drifts away. After Adele relocates to Germany with their daughter, Caden receives a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and resolves to make a grandly ambitious theater piece. As weeks (or is it decades?) pass, Caden's warehouse increasingly resembles his own cluttered head, where actors playing Caden and his associates work in a smaller warehouse inside the big one, and so on.
Synecdoche can support multiple interpretations, but I think Kaufman suggests that obsessing over the brevity and unfairness of life can prevent you from living your life. Hoffman so thoroughly conveys Caden's depression and decline that he's almost too heavy. Still, he can manage to turn a sentence like, "They said it was the longest and saddest deathbed speech they'd ever heard" into a laugh line. For his directorial debut, Kaufman shoots the moon, facing themes of loneliness, illness, failure and mortality as if he'll never make another film again. If Synecdoche is about making life count, Kaufman practices what he preaches.