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Synecdoche, New York Hurts My Head — In A Good Way You know you're in for a mind-bendy metapalooza when you go to see a Charlie Kaufman movie. Since capturing the hearts of critics with his dizzying dark comedy Being John Malkovich nearly a decade ago, Kaufman has been fairly consistent in his subject matter, bringing his distinctly dreamy surrealism to meditations on love, identity, art, fame and mortality. His latest, Synecdoche, New York, is a continuation of this odyssey, though infinitely bleaker and, if possible, even more complex to unravel than his previous offerings. As a friend put it perfectly when we left the two-hours-plus screening, by comparison it makes Adaptation seem like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

If you've read any of the early reviews, you've discovered that the movie's title is a clever play on words. "Synecdoche" is a near-homophone of the name of the city where the film is partially set, Schenectady, New York. It also means a part that substitutes for a whole, a fitting title for a film about a struggling theater director who spends twenty-five years staging an increasingly intricate play about his life as it happens, at the expense of actually living, so that the play stands in for the life it's meant to document.

The story begins with a deceptively straightforward plot: Caden Cotard (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is dissatisfied with his career directing community theater in upstate New York. His marriage to Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), whose painting career is just beginning to take off, is faltering. His only joy is his young daughter Olive. All at once, Caden begins suffering from a series of unexplained health problems -- including "sycosis," a skin ailment that he tells Olive, with an obvious wink to the doubleness of the movie's title, is different from "psychosis," which is what Mommy has.

In short order, Adele leaves Caden, Olive in tow, and quickly becomes a celebrated artist in Berlin. Just as his home life is falling apart at the seams, his professional life begins to flourish-- after a critically acclaimed staging of "Death of a Salesmen" in which he brilliantly casts young actors in the starring roles, he's awarded a MacArthur grant. Thus begins the painfully self-reflective task of conceiving what he hopes will be an "important" work of art.

Haunted by his wife and daughter's departure and desperate to leave a legacy, Caden mounts an ever-expanding theater project meant to depict every minute detail of his life as it's happening. At first, it seems that he's trying to make sense of the recent upheaval in his personal life, to reclaim control by, in effect, directing the action. But very soon, the play takes on a life of its own, and it becomes clear that it is not a means to an end but a permanent distraction from the reality of Caden's life.

In the midst of all of this, Caden becomes romantically entangled with Hazel, the flame-haired, voluptuous box office attendant at his theater, played by a stunning Samantha Morton. (She is, in fact, the catalyst for the narrative's departure from realism, which happens about twenty minutes in, during a scene in which she's shown buying a house that's inexplicably on fire.) Despite the obvious chemistry between the two, Caden eventually marries (and later divorces) self-obsessed Claire (Michelle Williams), the lead actress in his project.

A series of inexplicable tragedies occur -- Caden's mother is murdered; Olive, who's grown up into a husky-voiced German tattooed lady, dies from an infected tattoo (not before accusing her father, on her death bed, of being a homosexual who abandoned her); the man playing Caden in the theater piece commits suicide on set; the day after finally consummating their decades-long flirtation, Hazel dies (ironically, of smoke inhalation) -- and the world outside has, over the course of the twenty-five years that elapsed since the project was first begun, become a dystopian war zone. The hits keep on coming. The theater project is never actually performed for an audience, and Caden dies alone, an old, ineffectual man whose life work never comes to fruition.

On the surface, it's a dismal message that calls into question the significance of art and the cost of its pursuit to the exclusion of all else. The movie itself is at times laughably self-serious, self-important, bloated, myopic -- but I believe this is intentional, yet another layer that Kaufman's created to peel back, a clever commentary on the movie's plot and ultimate message.

When I left the theater, I was struck silent, and later, as I thought back on all the various storylines and sub-storylines and details and subtleties, moved to tears. This is not a movie one enjoys while one is watching it, at least not after the first, comparatively light hour goes by. And yet, while its moral seems to be that despite our best efforts, we will all die and be forgotten and that there is such a thing as being too self-aware, the film itself ends up contradicting this assertion. It functions, as few films -- even those most highbrow, culty, arthouse -- do, as a true work of art, leaves a lasting impression, encouraging discussion and inducing ample thought and consideration. Though painful and arduous to get through, it is rewarding in a way few films are these days.

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