The end is built into the beginning.
We all go about our lives creating a world around us. To us, we are the stars of a film; our surroundings are the set; and the people touching our lives supporting players and/or extras. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard watches as the plays he directs on-stage succeed and garner praise while the life he lives with wife and daughter falls apart around him. As a God crafting the activities and molding the characterizations of a cast, his own humanity is lost and hidden behind an insecure and scared shell of a man. Cotard is truly a selfish person who has thought only of himself and, in turn, looked upon those around him by how they interact in his own life.
We do audition the people we hold dear. They must pass a test before we allow them in our lives. Some go on to play bigger roles while others get fired for not doing their job. We raise our children and build them into what we feel a child should be—shaping them to grow up and succeed. It is all carefully orchestrated in the movie of our life, but you will never be truly happy until you realize that the extras in your story are the leads in their own. Each one will become more famous and sought after, bringing their show to Broadway and Hollywood while hitching a ride on a new director’s coattails. And it happens while you remain stuck and alone, going through the motions within your abandoned back-lot … eternally in Synecdoche, New York.
Is there anyone doing things more ambitiously or creatively then screenwriter Charlie Kaufman? The man is pure genius. Constantly delving into the world of fractured realities, his stories deal with multiple layers and intricate parallel universes. With Human Nature he showed us the clash between people raised in the wild with a doctor who finds and attempts to civilize them, all while having cut-scene interviews with the doctor (stuck in purgatory with a gunshot wound in the head). Being John Malkovich brought us a world where every human being is a puppet with which to be played and manipulated from the inside—each of us a hollow shell to be filled by an actor taking our story in new directions. Adaptation blurred the reality of life’s boring monotony with the action-packed excitement of a B-movie storyline and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind showed how true love is deeper than the memory we have of it. The good will always outweigh the bad. And you will only regret why you didn’t try harder to stop it when it’s all over, not knowing that the cycle will inevitably begin again.
With Synecdoche, Kaufman makes his debut behind the camera—with Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze off working on their own things—and he does so with his most elaborately challenging work yet. I’m sure it’s a very personal journey too as an evolution of a storyteller always creating new and exciting roles without taking the time to rewrite himself. Here Caden is full of depression while everyone else finds love and success, stagnant in his own self-pity. As such, I didn’t quite know what to expect when delving in. At first it seemed rooted in a slightly heightened yet accessible reality. Cotard was living a life of convenience with his regretful artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their hyper daughter Olive. His surroundings begin deteriorating as words become confused: ophthalmologist sounds like Neurologist which sounds like urologist; on the topic of suicide, “How would you do it” sounds like “How did you do it”, etc. Eventually all footing is lost once Samantha Morton’s Hazel buys a house literally on fire. It appears to be a gag as she speaks of being afraid of dying in the flames, yet the home is constantly burning as the film continues—possibly showing her role in Cotard’s life as the ever-alluring vixen he wants but never builds the courage to have.
The acting is brilliant across the board from large roles to small. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Maria becomes a fully fleshed creature—a destructive force in Cotard’s life—while only being on-screen for about five total minutes. She takes away his wife and then his daughter by becoming his surrogate in Berlin, the place he wasn’t allowed to go. She in effect becomes the first cast member in the life of Caden Cotard, a stand-in for him as he stays back to work on his MacArthur grant-funded masterpiece. The story suddenly becomes more and more surreal with Hoffman’s portrayal becoming more eccentric and crazed with nervous ticks and medical ailments cropping up one after another. Time folds in on itself as years pass despite it feeling like days or weeks to him. A wife and child gone for a year are missed as though they’re still returning a week after they left. The real world and that of his play’s reinterpretation of it meld together until the warehouse containing his work becomes his world with new warehouses built inside themselves as copies of places from his life to be walled up and forgotten. Even those cast members who “quit” his reality must be let-go on set to save budget. Synecdoche, New York becomes an ever-deepening rabbit hole reminiscent to M.C. Escher’s Relativity with Caden moving up, down, and around a maddening existence of solitude and selfishness.
More layers are created as Emily Watson is cast as Hazel in the play while the real-life Hazel (Morton) continues her journey with Hoffman’s Caden. Even Cotard himself begins to playact a character named Ellen who becomes the real-life Adele’s housekeeper while hiring Dianne Wiest to play “her” on-stage. Kaufman therefore creates a character that doesn’t exist in real life but does in the fiction as dictated by the rules of his art. It’s genius. And that’s after introducing Tom Noonan’s Sammy Barnathan, a character I adore. He’s ever-present throughout the entire film, always watching intently from the background. He stands across the street when Hoffman gets his mail, is a shadowed blur in front of the camera while creeping out from behind a tree when Hoffman meets his muse (Michelle Williams‘ actress Claire). He watches and waits until Caden needs an actor to play him. After all, how can he give himself notes if he cannot see what he’s doing? The only way to improve is by putting himself into the fiction to watch his insecurities and greed first-hand. He’s so vapid and egomaniacal, however, that he becomes jealous of the characters themselves. When the real Hazel flirts with Sammy while Caden watches, the latter can’t help but want it to stop. He must therefore break his own fourth wall to punish Sammy, leading to an utterly brilliant moment where Noonan confronts Hoffman with a sad reality intrinsic to this decades-long project.
Only when Wiest’s Millicent Weems takes the job of playing the real Caden—that’s right, the real Caden—can he finally get a break. He decides to hide inside his own play with all those he loved dead and gone, while Wiest tells him how to progress forward. It all spirals out of control as Cotard can no longer remember what happened in his past to bring him to where he has ended up. When he sees his daughter again, dying in a hospital bed and no longer able to understand English (her German upbringing replacing her entire childhood) do you begin wondering who left who? Is what we saw at the start—Keener’s Adele leaving—the truth? Or did Cotard leave them? By the time the end arrives you won’t know if anything you’ve seen actually happened. Even so, the final cue given to Hoffman’s “real” Caden Cotard as Ellen Bascomb couldn’t be more profound in its simplicity. He’s yearned to be told what to do at every step of his life, so it’s only appropriate that he’s told when he can finally take his much-deserved bow.
 Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton as Hazel. Photo by Abbot Gensler © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
 Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan. Photo taken by Abbot Gensler, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.
 Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.