Without question the most original and distinctive screenwriter of his generation, Charlie Kaufman offered a portal into an effete thespian's head in his breakthrough Being John Malkovich, but it's really the recesses of Kaufman's own conscience that have been explored in films like Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Now that he plumbs ever-deeper into Meta-ville with his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, it would be tempting to peg Kaufman as a narcissist, receding further and further from the world around him. But the charge doesn't stick, partly because he's mercilessly self-deprecating, but mainly because his work is more outward-looking than it appears, touching on themes of love, memory, desire, and, the pleasures and limitations of the creative impulse.
For this master of mindfuckery, Synecdoche, New York probably qualifies as a magnum opus, since it essentially multiplies Adaptation by an exponential factor and thus grows into a snarling, ungainly beast of self-reflexive absurdities. It's a movie that doesn't just benefit from repeat viewings but practically requires them, though Kaufman, for all his brilliance, fails to make the prospect as inviting as it should be. It helps that he finds the best possible on-screen surrogate in Philip Seymour Hoffman, who stars as a temperamental playwright longing to graduate from community theater into a higher artistic realm. At the same time his marriage to Catherine Keener falls apart, Hoffman receives a MacArthur genius grant and sets about making a play about life—not an aspect of life, but the whole enchilada. (Hence the ironic title: A "synecdoche" is when a word for part of something is meant to represent the whole.)
Such a project is impossible, of course, but Hoffman keeps expanding the set from warehouse to warehouse, adding more scenes and plotlines and doppelgangers until his play is the equivalent of dropping a Mogwai into a swimming pool. Scenes from his dissolved marriage and anxieties about his absent daughter are mixed up with bits from his current romantic adventures, to the point where he and flirty box-office attendant Samantha Morton both have doubles (Tom Noonan and Emily Watson) that follow them around. Kaufman allows the bafflements to pile up in a matter-of-fact way that recalls Luis Buñuel, and he comes to both endlessly witty and surprisingly poignant conclusions about how writers use their lives as grist for creative ventures. It can be an exhausting experience—and one that calls into question where Kaufman could possibly go from here—but as a brain-teaser, one that demands to be puzzled out.