Charlie Kaufman, if nothing else, is someone who consistently attacks universal themes in his films. We all want much of the same stuff; we are all driven by the same base fears. We want to be remembered, admired, romantically loved; we want to win. Likewise, we fear dying, we fear getting older, and we fear being forgotten. Kaufman knows this well. His most popular work, the script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was fixated on the memory of love and the search for emotional stability, and his first work as a director (Synecdoche, New York) strove to answer big questions about human frailty and the way we perform our daily lives.
Kaufman’s newest film, the Netflix-backed adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, again looks at massive issues of our interior lives- failed relationships, broken families, aging and death, the quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t know how to deliver on these ideas in an interesting way. Kaufman is surely an architect, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is yet another arthouse Tower of Babel, boring into the sky and boring me out of my mind.
From the beginning, there is something amiss in this world. Jessie Buckley’s unnamed character wants to break up with her boyfriend Jake, and the grueling car ride to his parents’ house makes a pretty compelling case that their loveless relationship needs to end. Her thoughts serve as the narration, which Jake (portrayed by Jesse Plemons trying his best) constantly interrupts with asinine questions. We finally arrive at the country home, and Jake’s reticence and discomfort around his parents and his childhood home is obvious. Plemons conveys this unspoken unease well, and here’s where Kaufman makes his first mistake- a well of character dynamic, rich with backstory and intrigue, and yet he keeps it elusive and out of reach.
Suffice to say, the dinner does not go well, and things spin out of control; Jake’s parents, portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are shifting in and out of some liminal space between awkward doting parents and non-sequitur approximations of real people. Collette especially is going for something unhinged, shifting into Hereditary mode for about five minutes in order to sell the dream logic of this semi-haunted house and her own ghostliness. When the young woman eventually wanders around the house, she begins to slip in and out of moments in time, seeing Jake’s parents at both earlier and later moments of their lives. We see them as both lively young parents and dementia-riddled seniors as the young woman travels through their lives. Here Kaufman makes another wrong turn, creating an interesting dreamy comment on the way we imagine and inject ourselves into the timelines of other people, and yet he depicts it in a way that is simultaneously overlong and laughably half-baked.
After this is where the real pain begins, and I’ll be brief- there is another 30 minutes spent trapped in the car with the unhappy couple, they stop to get some repulsive looking ice cream, and when they stop at Jake’s old high school to find a trash can, they enter in to find yet another mysterious physical manifestation of his past. I won’t give away the ending, but it illuminates basically nothing, a trait many people see as a good thing or a brilliant trick.
Unsatisfying endings, elusive themes, and vague truths are not a bad thing; they often find their way into good films in one way or another. But having these things is not a marker of quality, and the extent to which I’m Thinking of Ending Things uses its ambiguity as a driving force attempts to cloak the fact that it has nothing to say. There is no insight to offer, and there is very little to be wrung from this that isn’t completely obvious. Getting old is scary; breaking up is hard. We know this- why doesn’t Kaufman trust us enough to go any deeper than that?
Kaufman goes out of his way to call out, by name, two different directors from two very different fields of cinema. We see the mysterious janitor figure watching some schlocky feelgood picture on TV that we find out was directed by Robert Zemeckis. In the second car ride, the young woman puts on a transatlantic accent to recite Pauline Kael’s infamous pan of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, inspired by her own frustration with Jake and her finding his book of Kael’s reviews in his childhood bedroom.
In both scenarios, Kaufman wants us to think he’s funny, but he only seems jealous. Taking a shot at a Hollywood blockbuster builder like Zemeckis seems like punching down for an esteemed and arty man like Kaufman, but he only reveals his shallowness. He decries overly sincere and maudlin mainstream films in favor of flaunting this film’s lack of either sentiment or plot like some sort of achievement. He steps further out of his element when he quotes Kael. If he’s using these old reviews to mock Cassavetes, then he’s a coward who should use his own words; if he’s bringing them up to create a layer of intellectual distance between the characters and the audience, then he’s an overbearing tryhard, showing up to a party with a head full of memorized facts but unable to hold a conversation.
Kaufman strains against these two polar opposites because he can’t achieve what either has done. He’s convinced himself he’s too smart to engage in the broad pop culture joy of well-made popcorn movies, and he’s too focused on some sense of magical realism and distancing to scratch the surface of emotion and realism that Cassavetes offers, leaving him in the self-involved paint-huffing purgatory of this convoluted and disastrous film. Perhaps he’ll eventually make his way out of his Sisyphean quest to conquer his own mind, but for now we’re left with the collateral of this big dumb boulder, more of a cautionary tale than anything resembling a good movie.