Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s characters have always been insanely neurotic and self-obsessed, but his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” takes the unrelenting self-examination to new heights.

Kaufman’s directorial debut is as playful and fascinating as anything he’s written before, but its sheer strangeness and stubborn, willful obscurity might be a turn-off, even for viewers who enjoyed his past efforts like “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” both odd films in their own right. It’s certainly a challenging, often frustrating film that demands repeat viewing for its rewards to be reaped.

“Synecdoche” follows a couple decades in the life of Schenectady, NY-based playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in full-on schlub mode) after he loses his disinterested wife (Catherine Keener, playing an icy character similar to the one she played in Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich”) and young daughter and begins his grand theatrical experiment.
Caden attempts to reconstruct his world full-scale inside a huge warehouse, where he attempts to recreate reality using scenes from his own life and those of the actors he’s cast. Or something like that… it all gets very confusing, especially to those who live inside Caden’s recreated little world.
As the years slip by, the lines between the actors and the characters they play begin to blur: Caden, for example, hires an actor to play himself; this actor falls in love with Caden’s real-life love, Hazel (played by Samantha Morton) instead of her double, as Caden intended.

Countless complications ensue as the characters attempt to keep their roles and their own selves straight; identities begin to crumble as the layers start to compile out of control.

As is usual in Kaufman’s scripts, the film’s world hovers somewhere in between something that is meant to resemble reality and something that can only be described as surreal, even nightmarish. A woman purchases a house that is on fire, which does not kill her for 30 years; a little girl’s diary fills up with words even though she abandoned it years earlier. The details are rich, and there is no way to absorb everything that is going on the first time through.

As a cryptic rumination of the ways we attempt to know and understand ourselves and others, the film puts forth some startling theses on human nature. Much like the theater director Hoffman plays, we all project onto others certain qualities and “defining” characteristics on the other “actors” we encounter in our lives.

Fittingly, this film has recieved little publicity outside of film nerd/industry circles; the only place you can catch “Synecdoche” is up in the hills of Santa Barbara, at the Riviera Theater (mysteriously, no showtimes listed online); as one of five in the audience, the viewing experience itself felt pretty surreal.