If it only took a tightly-constructed screenplay full of endless meta-logic and self-reference, then Synecdoche, New York would be a great movie.

And if it only took marrying such a screenplay with a dozen or so supremely poetic images to make a great movie, then Synecdoche, New York would still be a great movie.

But alas, Synecdoche, New York is not at all a great movie. It is a great unwieldy mess, although it's also not as bad as one could have feared when the words "the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman" were first uttered. It's egocentric and undisciplined, and at least somewhat inscrutable, but it doesn't have the effect of retroactively making his other films look bad. Except for maybe Adaptation., which mined similar thematic territory using some of the same recursive mindfuckery.

Best to begin with the concept: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director and sometime playwright based out of Schenectady, New York, where he is just preparing to debut a new production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman using an all-youth cast. His goal is to suggest irony to the audience, that these young people pretending to be middle-aged and desperate will themselves someday be middle-aged and desperate; that is the true tragedy of the piece. That's the key to unlocking the whole movie, which is basically a two-hour variation on the theme, "actors playing people who they haven't yet become, and death reigns over all."

Oh, but I haven't finished with the concept yet! Right around the same time that Caden's Salesman premieres, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) takes their 4-year-old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) on a trip to Germany to present a show of her microscopic portraits of women, a trip that Adele plainly views as the end of their dying marriage; indeed, neither she nor Olive ever returns. But that's not all that's going wrong in Caden's life, for just before Adele's departure, an exploding sink leaves a massive cut in his head, and that leads to a series of increasingly confused doctors finding more and more inexplicable health problems. Eventually, convinced that death from some strange disease is just around the bend, and armed with a brand new MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Caden prepares to mount the greatest work of his career: in a giant warehouse in New York City, he will stage his life and the lives of everyone he knows, in their entirety, in sets which replicate in full scale all of the buildings and streets where their lives play out.

Characteristically for the writer, the details in between the plot end up mattering just as much as the story proper: there's the affairs that Caden strikes up with his theater's ticket-taker Hazel (Samantha Morton), who lives in a house that's always on fire, and with his leading lady Claire (Michelle Williams); there's the psychotically prim therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), whose useless self-help books keep cropping up in tiny places everywhere Caden isn't looking; there's the strange problem Caden develops with time, in which he can no longer remember how long it's been since Adele left him - if it was just last week, how is Olive already a sexually precocious 10-year-old? This last detail, along with several others that are much more minor, raises the question of just where in space and time this story is taking place - the easy out is to assume that everything after the sink incident represents the wanderings of a dying man's mind, but Kaufman (thankfully) never insists on that reading. I found myself thinking of Finnegans Wake while I was watching the film - a semi-narrative that takes place inside one man's unconscious mind during an uncertain duration, with details sliding in here and there which may or may not give the reader a clue as to what's "really" happening.

Be that as it may, the production that Caden spends the rest of his life working on, however long that might end up being, is unambiguously a projection of his subconscious knowledge of things. Inevitable, his life and his process merge into the same thing, enough so that Sammy (Tom Noonan), the actor he's cast as himself, becomes so important to his daily living that Sammy himself is made into a character in the play - it's like walking into a room with mirrors on either side and looking into infinity. By the end, Caden has turned into his play enough that the distinctions between himself and Sammy, and between Hazel and Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel, have completely broken down, among other crises which hit the anticipated "art is life is art" notes.

(The film never belabors the irony of its title: "synecdoche" is the literary device of using part of the whole to refer to the whole, e.g. "a head of cattle", and so is Caden's play a synecdoche for his life. Except, of course, it eventually contains his whole life, and is thus no longer a synecdoche).

The strangest thing about Synecdoche, New York, is that none of this seems particularly confusing while you're watching - it's only when you try to settle down to the serious business of figuring out the movie that it begins to seem insurmountably slippery. I don't know what this says about the film, but I know this much: whatever work it takes to unpack the film's levels upon levels of meaning, it's not worth it.

There's another film I thought of a few times while watching this one: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, in which an artist even more trapped in his head than Kaufman got to make a movie almost completely without outside interference. But that film, like many of Lynch's films, uses its hopelessly confusing plot as a Trojan horse to play around with themes while you're not looking. Synecdoche, however surreal and fantastic its story, is utterly clear about it's meaning: it is unabashedly about the fear of mortality, specifically Charlie Kaufman's fear of mortality, for it is equally obvious that Caden is nothing but a stand-in for the writer-director. I know that critics aren't supposed to admit that they read other critics, but Dave Edelstein's words on this point are too perfect for me to try bettering them: "This epic dream play... poses a momentous question: Uh... well... I’m not sure what question the movie is posing. The answer, though, is definitely ' Death.'"

The filmmaker flings himself at this theme with single-minded abandon, leaving a film of virtually unlimited sprawl morbidly obsessed with one and only one topic. Ingmar Bergman would have found this movie tiresomely miserable. With the director so endlessly fascinated with this very narrow view of things, one of the best ensemble casts of 2008 (also including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robin Weigert, and worst of all, Dianne Weist, criminally wasted once again in a non-Woody Allen project) can produce hardly anything interesting; mostly, everybody just mumbles, although Leigh gets to mumble with a German accent that's actually pretty funny. If anybody comes out of Synecdoche well, it's Jon Brion, whose minimalist score is the only thing in the film to suggest that there's any emotion in the world besides the fear of mortality.

Kaufman's not a bad director, as such: on the contrary, this is a very technically adept film with some great shots of the inside of the warehouse and a few particularly memorable images here and there. But when he's directing his own screenplay, it turns into exactly the navel-gazing fest that it was easy to fear. I constantly, desperately wanted to see what this would have looked like with Michel Gondry in the director's chair: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wasn't the best thing either of those men ever produced by accident. Kaufman was there to add the gravitas and adult viewpoint, Gondry had an addle-minded delight about life, and together they made a masterpiece. Whereas in the years since, Gondry's solo work has become incredibly twee and full of irritating boy-men, while Kaufman's has become... this. Unremittingly grim, without any spark of life to it at all, and too solipsistic to even consider the depths of human suffering that might have made it worthwhile.