The story has to do with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman "
), the director of a small theatre company in Schenecdaty, New York, who suddenly finds
himself physically falling apart. Adding to his woes is the fact that
his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener
"Capote") leaves him, taking their
little daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein)
with her; and he finds that his romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton
"In America"), his box-office
manager, seems to be coming to nothing as well.
Things change when he receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant that he
decides to use to create a life-mirroring play in which a huge troupe
of actors will perform scenes in a miniature version of New York
City that he constructs in a massive warehouse. His preparations for
the venture go on for years, during which time he hires a strange
fellow (Tom Noonan
"The Pledge") who’s been following him around surreptitiously to
play Caden himself, and an actress (Emily Watson
"Breakin the Waves") to play Hazel. He
also hires an actress (Diane Wiest "
Bullets over Broadway"
) to play a cleaning
woman. Caden’s obsessed with cleaning and often sees himself in
that role, but eventually she’ll plays an even more important role. The
play is always being rehearsed, but it is never performed. As Caden grows older and feebler he must deal with the deaths of his
parents and the problems with his now grown-up daughter while confronting
his own mortality.
How much of this is supposed to represent reality and how much is simply Caden’s
artistic vision or psychological hallucination, is anybody’s guess. But
clearly what writer/director Charlie Kaufman
("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") in his first directing effort is trying to illuminate is the inevitability of growing old and dying. Caden represents every
man, just as his model represents Manhattan and his play represents life. The doubling effect also extends into what little
we see of the play, basically a commentary on how art is essentially a torturously
reductionist process, a point made not only by Caden’s mini-New York
but by Adele’s tiny paintings, which are so small one has to look
through a magnifying glass to see them. Sadly, this existential, sprawling, surreal film is far too hard-to-follow and frustrating to watch.