Synecdoche: n. A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword). -- American Heritage Dictionary
The directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling, messy work of inspired brilliance and real humanity, a film that enthralls and affects even as it infuriates and confounds. Kaufman gives us parts, and the whole; he gives us the general and the specific. The plot is, on the surface, about a theater director, Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose work, and life, in upstate New York have both fallen into a state of stasis relieved only by hints of slow decay. His marriage to Adele (Catherine Keener) is a qualified success: somewhat supportive, somewhat loving, somewhat successful, sustained in part by their daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). And just as Caden's life falls apart personally -- Adele, a painter, takes Olive to Berlin for a gallery showing and never comes back -- he also earns a "Genius" grant, and embarks on an ambitious, immersive theater piece that'll be his masterwork.
But that meat-and-potatoes synopsis does not, and can not, fully explain what Kaufman covers and examines and explores and offers in the film -- partially because of the fluidity of time and space and art and reality in the story, and partially because of how Kaufman wedges every frame full of set design, side notes, visual tricks, subtext, deadpan jokes, prosthetic makeup, voice-over, post-modern inventions and old-fashioned melodrama. Synecdoche, New York veers away from reality fairly early in its journey; indeed, there's a question of if it even starts anywhere near there to begin with. Caden's obsessed with the decline of his physical body as he ages, poking at bumps, examining anomalies, concerned with disease.