Like all the movies made from his pretzel-logic screenplays, Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut isn't really light watching, even when it's funny. And Synecdoche, New York offers even less grounding in reality than his norm.

Like all the movies made from his pretzel-logic screenplays, Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut isn't really light watching, even when it's funny. And Synecdoche, New York offers even less grounding in reality than his norm.

Nevertheless, like his best work, Kaufman's latest explores something huge, universal and surprisingly touching. In Being John Malkovich it was identity; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, love and memory. Here, to be reductive (sorry, Charlie), it's a couple of common adages: people are people and life is too short.

In the beginning, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director approaching middle age with a wife (Catherine Keener) - a successful painter of miniscule portraits - and a four-year-old daughter.

Over two hours, he ages decades, loses the wife and daughter faster than he realizes, marries an actress (Michelle Williams), pines for box-office worker Hazel (Samantha Morton) and devotes years to a truth-seeking play that recreates his entire life, down to the neighborhood, himself and everyone he knows, in an improbably huge theater space.

Caden's inclined toward dourness, but Hoffman makes him fascinating, with support from some of the best actresses working (Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson and Dianne Wiest).

Together they help build a bridge over Kaufman's witty, hard-to-read absurdities toward an understanding that Caden's experience is our own in essential ways. The rites of birth, family, love, loss, friendship and death are shared by everyone, and to lose sight of this is to let life hopscotch-jump by with dizzying speed.