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The shortest review I can offer you for I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a comparison. Do you think Charlie Kaufman’s work is getting better or worse over time? If you think it’s getting better you are going to love this. If you don’t, that answer is probably complicated.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of a short novel with a twist. Kaufman wrote the screenplay for the film and directed it himself, which seems to be a mistake. He’s the mind behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and (at least part of) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all masterpieces. He started to direct his own scripts after that, with the devastating Synecdoche, New York and the frustrating, messy, Anomalisa. I’m a fan of the former, though it really does ask a lot of you and I like it less than all three other films mentioned, but I really hated the latter. Anomalisa at least does challenge you. I thought about it a lot after I saw it. Even when I don’t like what he’s doing with the premise, I have to hand it to Kaufman on the premise itself.
I’m not alone in the opinion that he’s a better writer than director and it’s not uncommon for truly out there writers to benefit from someone who can reign in their impulses. I’m Thinking of Ending Things sets the bar really high with the combination of an adapted work and no one to tell Charlie Kaufman no. The result is a movie that is somehow both tedious and experimental, both frustrating and interesting, both extremely well-written and shockingly bad at times. It’s both ends of the spectrum, which is better than just being not very good, but it really just never settles into any lane for long enough to be something you will enjoy.
A theme of “classic film” that comes up again and again is that question: Are we having fun yet? Charlie Kaufman has absolutely no interest in making fun movies, which is fine. However, even from the guy who made Synecdoche, New York, this is dark territory. It’s made all the darker by what we don’t see.
Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) are going to meet his parents. During the drive and dinner at their old farmhouse both Jake and his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette, both excellent in limited roles) call her multiple names, most often Lucy but also Lucia and Ames. She continually gets phone calls from people who may also have these names. Details change continuously, telling us things are not as they seem. For the first hour, the confusion is fascinating and slight enough that we are drawn in. It’s impossible to understand but not frustrating. The inaccuracies get bigger and bigger, with surreal elements that balloon into a full reality break. Both parents rapidly age and then shift back as they come in and out of scenes. Jessie Buckley’s character, who I am going to call Lucy though it’s important that you know she is not Lucy, can’t keep it together.
The title comes from Lucy’s inner monologue about potentially breaking up with Jake. At times he seems to sense this if not actually hear her inner monologue, though he pushes forward with inane chatter and long stories about poetry. This is supposed to be the pretentious conversation of this kind of person at this sort of age, but Kaufman falls into a trap by using two annoying characters in a two-person movie. Even if the joke is “can you believe how unbearable this is?” it doesn’t matter that it’s a joke, it’s still happening for really, really long scenes full of high-minded, lengthy quotes from scholarly works. It’s satire, sure, but it’s so much that it becomes the text itself.
We’ve talked before about how “pretentious” has come to just mean “bad” in criticism. This is not a bad movie, but it certainly is pretentious. If you buy the ticket to a movie that Charlie Kaufman has complete control over, this is what you’re signing up for. It’s hard to fault it on those lines, but I really have to insist in this case. The inner mystery of the film really is just variations of the question “what is happening?” The ending somewhat answers the question, but the drive there feels exceedingly long. A trip to the high school on the way out of town extends into a lengthy dream ballet in the style of An American in Paris. There is internal logic to why this happens, but I challenge you to not let out a groan when faced with a dream ballet in a Netflix movie in a year that starts with a two.
Pauline Kael was the film critic for The New Yorker and famously wrote the alternative history that led to the plot of Mank, though her positive contributions to film and criticism are extensive. That said, she was a film critic decades ago for The New Yorker. You don’t need to know who this is. You do need to know that one of the longest, most uncomfortable scenes in a recent film is the moment where Lucy quotes, at great length, Pauline Kael’s review of a John Cassavetes movie. She doesn’t attribute it in the scene, which does have some internal logic, just like the dream ballet, but even with an explanation, again, this is a long scene where someone rambles direct quotes of a movie review from five decades ago in the place of conversation. Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek said “Who, out there, still reads Kael? Who will get his tricky little joke, and if you do, what do you win? Kaufman doesn’t care how smart you are, as long as you know how smart he is.”
On the other side, IndieWire wrote this bizarre piece that starts “Charlie Kaufman is not a fan of solving movies for his audience” and then solves the movie with spoilers in extreme detail and great length. It’s well written, but it’s a testament to the movie Kaufman made that he agreed to do a 3,000 word explainer that breaks down who characters are and what every scene means. If you aren’t going to watch this or already have, check that out, but really do not if you want to experience this first hand.
But should you? It’s way too long and frustratingly cute, though I did like some of the jokes and the central mystery hooked me more than it didn’t. The horror is muted and mostly contained in a retrospective look at what you just saw, especially once you realize what the different perspectives meant. I have a lot of patience for movies like this and even more for Charlie Kaufman, but ultimately I think this is too much. There’s a good story in here, probably the one in the novel that made him want to tell a slightly different story in the same space, but the end result is a meal that’s all spices and seasonings. A little goes a long way, and I cannot rightfully recommend wholeheartedly any movie where a major plot point requires you to be deeply familiar with the specific reasons Pauline Kael didn’t like A Woman Under the Influence in 1974.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I didn’t mean for this to follow a Cassavetes movie, but there’s a nice connection here. Opening Night is better than this. Both feature ambiguous endings, though I think you’re intended to walk away from this one with a more conclusive view of the world. The magic is all distracting and while every review I read seems focused on making sure you understand that the reviewer Definitely Got It, I stand by my point that even if the devices are devices, if we spend the whole movie with them then that’s the story you showed us, no matter what the point behind it all is.
Is it the best movie of all time? No. Sticking with Persona, and this is definitely on the lower end of the list. I liked it better than Anomalisa, but otherwise I think this is Kaufman’s worst work. A.A. Dowd said in his review for The A.V. Club that it would frustrate people who really liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and he is very much correct. Jessie Buckley especially is really fantastic in this and there are moments that I think are spectacular, but this movie needed a stronger hand from the editor very badly and probably a different director to sharpen Kaufman’s work rather than letting it sprawl out over 134 minutes.
You can watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.