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‘Synecdoche, New York’ defies categorization

First-time director Charlie Kaufman’s ambitious exploration of love, art and death aims high — and squarely hits the target

If a seasoned filmmaker created a work as funny, moving, perplexing, thought-provoking, poignant and powerful as “Synecdoche, New York,” that alone would be reason for exultation. The fact that this little gem — both intimate and epic, cerebral and emotional — marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman makes the achievement all the more worthy of celebration.

The usual plot synopsis won’t be able to capture everything that goes on in the film, but it’s essentially the story of theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose life is literally and figuratively disintegrating around him. While his body’s functions begin shutting down one by one, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) abandons him, heading off to Berlin to show her artwork and taking their young daughter with her.

Newly single Caden is pursued by Hazel (Samantha Morton), the ebullient woman who runs the box office at his theater, but he winds up marrying actress Claire (Michelle Williams) instead. Caden receives a MacArthur Genius Grant and sets out to create his most ambitious theater piece yet: a play that will be simulacrum of his town of Schenectady, with actors playing the roles of everyone in town (Caden and Hazel included; Claire, of course, plays herself) and a godlike Caden shaping the lives of his characters.

As the play progresses, Caden loses track of time — this is a man, after all, who directed a production of “Death of a Salesman” with twenty-somethings playing Willy and Linda Loman — and what feels like weeks in the movie’s chronology turns out to be years, as characters age, die and otherwise get on with their lives. His ever-expanding theater piece grows more and more ambitious as Caden loses more control over his real life and his health.

Without getting too much into the further plot mechanics of “Synecdoche, New York,” I can say the film provides a banquet’s worth of food for thought about love and relationships, artists and the elusive nature of “truth,” how death impacts the way we live our lives, and even the phenomenon of character actors becoming familiar yet distant presences in the lives of moviegoers. (The film offers dozens of recognizable faces in the cast, from its leading players down to favorite “oh-that-guys” like Jerry Adler and Alice Drummond.)

The rap on writers-turned-directors is that they sacrifice images to words, but Kaufman deftly juggles both. The writing is as funny and heartbreaking and oddball as you’d expect from the man behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but Caden’s worlds-within-worlds are also a wonder to behold.

Director Kaufman also makes all the right moves in casting the perfect ensemble and getting great work from them. Hoffman gives another superlative performance, and he’s ably supported by fellow troupers Keener, Williams and Morton as well as Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Dianne Weist and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

“Synecdoche, New York” left me speechless at first; since that feeling passed, I haven’t been able to stop thinking or talking about it. It’s the best American film of 2008 to date, and probably of 2007 and 2006 as well.