Whoah. Okaaaaaaay. I think we suspected all along that Charlie Kaufman—like most undisputed geniuses—has problems, but, um, yo. Dude has PAH-ROB-A-LEMS. Synecdoche, New York—Kaufman's directorial debut (i.e., the first of his scripts without an outside hand for checks and balances)—is a ponderous, inky cloud of neurosis and misery. It's the doldrums; it's a bummer; it's a sprawling, tentacled, squishy squid thing, too big to look at all at once. It's the unfiltered contents of Charlie Kaufman's brain. It is no fun at all.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a successful playwright (hey, good job, man!!) with an adorable daughter and a nice house and an interesting wife (who, admittedly, doesn't love him anymore, but is played by Catherine Keener, so that's a plus) and all of those tangible and intangible things that—I know, I know (yaaaawn)—don't technically "buy" happiness, but certainly contribute to it. Unless you're one of those people who is never happy, because love is a lie, and we are nothing but sad, lonely beasts, wasting our existence on a slow, solitary, pointless slide into death. Caden is one of those people.
Or, to put it another way, GAAHHHHHH.
There is no joy in Synecdoche, New York—none of the refracted brightness that hovers around the corners of Eternal Sunshine or the gleeful absurdity of Being John Malkovich or the funny, fuck-it cynicism of Adaptation. It's possible that the sheer accumulation of melancholy that Caden drags behind him and unfurls before him is intended to be funny, in a dark, ridiculous, head-shaking kind of way. But it's not. It's just depressing.
The whole thing starts out innocuously enough. Caden putters around the house, obsessing about health—avian flu, expired milk, green poop, arthritis, head wounds—and having almost-funny conversations over the morning paper ("Harold Pinter died." "Well, he was old." "Oh, no. He won the Nobel Prize"). Soon, his marriage begins to disintegrate ("Can I say something awful? I've fantasized about Caden dying"), along with his body ("What's wrong with your face, daddy?" "Um, it's pustules").
Then everything goes bonkers. Caden wins a MacArthur grant (maybe), his wife leaves him (maybe), he has another baby (maybe), he's gay (super maybe), he is sometimes in Berlin (maaaaybe!), time becomes stretchy, and he begins construction on the masterpiece that will occupy the rest of his long, dismal life (um, maybe): a piece of real, true, honest theater; theater as a facsimile of real life, but a manufactured real life. Real life directed by Caden. It's huge and crazy and would be magnificent if you could sit through it enough times to make sense of the whole thing. But who wants to do that?