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The Movie Review: 'Synecdoche, New York'

"Regardless of how this whole thing works out, I will be dying, and so will you, and so will everyone else here. And that's what I'd like to explore." These are the opening instructions that theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) offers a newly assembled cast in Charlie Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York. But they might just as easily serve as a warning to prospective moviegoers.

Fans of the film (and I am one) will praise its immense ambition and originality; critics, for their part, will declare it to be glum and narcissistic. As is not infrequent in such cases, both are correct. Synecdoche, New York is a huge film about puny sentiments, an anti-heroic epic of failure, remorse, alienation, and self-pity. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is very likely to be the most extraordinary.

Like past Kaufman scripts (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), this one begins in mundane enough fashion, as Caden awakes with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and preschool daughter Olive in his modest home in Schenectady, New York. (The movie's title, like Adaptation before it, is a pun, drawing on both the name of the town and the literary device of synecdoche, in which a part is made to stand in for the whole.) The household is quickly beset by signs of decay: a public-radio interviewee who explains that writers are drawn to autumn because "it's the beginning of the end"; a magazine cover entitled "Attending to Your Illness"; the discovery that Olive's poop is inexplicably green (this is the first of many ill-colored emissions). The first notable event in the film is a plumbing calamity: As Caden shaves at the bathroom sink, the faucet jerks like a cut snake before exploding; his resulting head wound requires a trip to the emergency room. It is, as Caden guesses, "just the start of something awful."

As Caden's health deteriorates in odd and sometimes gruesome ways, Adele--a painter of canvases so tiny that they are shipped in crates the size of matchboxes--takes Olive away with her to Berlin for a gallery show of indeterminate length. Caden's center cannot hold: Spoken language fails (characters trade confusions over homonyms like "stool" and "pipe"), and time itself seems to distend. When Hazel (Samantha Morton), the sweet, romantically forward ticket girl at Caden's theater, points out that "it's been a year" since Adele abandoned him, Caden replies as if she's nuts: "It's been a week." But though we've been conditioned to take his side in the temporal dispute, she is in fact correct.

After winning a MacArthur genius grant (how, it is difficult to imagine), Caden begins the production of a theatrical event in an abandoned New York warehouse, a vast simulacrum of the outside world for which actors must be found to play the actors playing the characters in infinite regression. A stalker (Tom Noonan) who has followed Caden for decades becomes his on-set double; an actress hired to play Hazel (Emily Watson) replaces her offstage as well by letting Caden take her to bed; another (Dianne Wiest) arrives to play a part that Caden had stumbled into in real life (that of ex-wife Adele's cleaning woman), only to replace him altogether as art gradually usurps reality.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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