Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. His life catering to suburban blue-hairs at the local regional theater in Schenectady, New York is looking bleak. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has left him to pursue her painting in Berlin, taking their young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her. His therapist, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. A new relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Samantha Morton) has prematurely run aground. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. Worried about the transience of his life, he leaves his home behind. He gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in New York City, hoping to create a work of brutal honesty. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a growing mockup of the city outside.

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Let the games begin.

A synecdoche is a figure of speech where a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. Synecdoche, New York – the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – takes place in part in Schenectady, New York. In this case, according to Kaufman, Synecdoche should be pronounced as Schenectady (phonetically it’s ska-neck-tay-de). Confused? And that’s just the title.

Kaufman’s fictional synecdoche is Caden Cotard, who as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is a tiny part of humanity whose fears comes to represent those we all purportedly share. A theatre director who is married to an artist, Adele (Catherine Keener), with whom he has a young daughter, Caden wakes up one morning and sees death everywhere he looks: newspaper reports of bird flu, obituaries and, eventually, his own body. 'This very place of desolation," declares an actor in his latest production, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the term comes to define Caden’s failing physique.

'Serious? We don’t know, but yes," remarks the first of many doctors who treat Caden, and that blithely bleak tone is familiar from much of Kaufman’s work. Synecdoche, New York is a black comedy about our terrors of mortality, with the kicker being that sometimes it’s the living part that is truly difficult. You can understand why Kaufman’s long time collaborator, filmmaker Spike Jonze, demurred from directing this in favour of adapting Where the Wild Things Are, as here the wit and invention are often secondary to the philosophical murmuring.

Caden’s slow motion collapse – pustules appear on his face, his pupils don’t dilate properly, he has to manually produce saliva prior to eating – is accentuated by the departure of Adele and his daughter for Berlin, where she becomes a star of the contemporary art world by producing microscopic works. His focus is the opposite, as he decides to use a McArthur Foundation genius grant to evolve a theatre piece inside a giant warehouse, where the actors play everyday people as a fake city is constructed but no actual performance is ever held.

Various ideas common in Kaufman’s work feature, from the unnatural compression of time to the dislocation of reality. More than 30 years pass, or a single second if a closing sound cue is to be taken at face value, as Caden’s project becomes a kind of alternate existence, with Caden’s second wife, a sweet-natured actress (Michelle Williams) playing herself opposite an actor (Tom Noonan), cast as him. All these gambits combine, intermittently, for sequences either droll or elegiac, but what the film doesn’t have is a final, incisive insight into the tangled themes encompassing life and death.

In an increasingly Fellini-seque dreamscape (watch how the hospitals become underground bunkers), Kaufman proves that he’s an unassuming visual stylist but a shrewd casting director. Philip Seymour Hoffman catches the tiny deviations and self-recrimination of Caden’s journey, while there’s a sequence of women who slyly torment him, most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh as a passive-aggressive friend of Adele’s.

Synedoche, New York has tended to divide audiences, but it’s easily appreciated as an unfiltered example of Kaufman’s art. This may be how all his films began, but this time there’s no-one to rein him in. It’s a messy, sprawling, hopelessly passionate movie, as much self-obsessed as it is yearning for answers. That it never finds one is just part of its curious charm.