"Synecdoche, New York" is Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, and even though he is, for the first time, the big-picture architect, he still can't get away from being the little man inside working the gears. In this case, though, the Kaufman inside adds the human touch, at least for the movie's first half. But like "Eternal Sunshine" before it, "Synecdoche" is two movies in conflict with each other, one half scratching at something deep and painful, the other patting itself on the back for being so technically elaborate and emotionally ambitious. The movie's title itself has a double meaning: It's a sound-alike word for the upstate New York city in which the lead character lives, and also a figure of speech in which a very specific word is used as a substitute for a more general one, or vice versa. Discuss. Or maybe that should be: Lather, rinse, repeat. I wouldn't be so hard on "Synecdoche" if I hadn't been so drawn in by its early moments and so drained by the rest of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman (totally a hot guy for queers who like that kinda guy) plays Caden Cotard, a theater director working for a regional company in Schenectady -- as the movie opens, he's putting the finishing touches on that old chestnut "Death of a Salesman," in which he has purposely cast young actors, directing them to play the beaten-down souls that, even in the midst of their youthful freshness, they know they'll eventually become. Caden's wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), is an artist who paints miniatures -- they're exquisite and raw at the same time, angry little things that require a great deal of painstaking discipline to create. Caden and Adele live with their young daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), in a drab, messy, run-down house. That house, a place no one has the time, money or energy to spruce up, is a piercingly realistic visual metaphor for the things most people give up when they've followed their dream of working in the arts. In the movies, painters, directors, writers and their ilk usually live in groovy Tribeca lofts or in spare, sprawling split-level houses. The house Caden and his family live in, packed with literal and metaphysical clutter, is the perfect setting in which to go mad. And at the beginning of "Synecdoche, New York," Caden seems headed for madness. A freak shaving accident sends him to the emergency ward, and once the doctors start looking at him, they start finding a million things wrong with him: His pupils don't dilate properly; his face becomes dotted with pustules.
Are these ailments real or imagined?